The Journey to Google Reference School

The Hardware is the Icing on the Cake!

Most recently, I had the opportunity to take the Aspiring Heads course with the Association of International School Heads. During the course we looked at the 5 Threads of Leadership from Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge. These include Model the Way, Challenge the Process, Inspire a Shared Vision for Learning, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. What was great about looking at this model, was that I had actually studied the model in the year 2000 during a Leadership Seminar course at Wilfrid Laurier University. It was great to circle back to this learning, with a much different lens this time, that of 20 years of work and life experience! I am going to use this model to frame our story.

The requirements for achieving Google Reference School status are as follows:

100% of the teaching staff using G Suite
100% of students> = 6 years+ using G Suite
50% of G Suite active students once a month
30% of students using Google Classroom once a month

1 Google Trainer certified for every 100 teachers
20% of the Google Level 1 certified teaching team
5% of the Google Level 2 certified teaching team
*Minimum of 20 certified educators

The Bridge Builders (The IT/Innovation Team)

Inspire a Shared Vision of Learning

Our journey towards becoming a Google Reference School started in August 2018. This 18 month journey started with the vision of improving our faculty knowledge of the Google Suite in order to improve our faculties skill sets, and thus to make our students better. Upon discussion with our Head of School, we decided to shoot for the lofty of goal of having all of our staff, both teaching and non-teaching, take the Google Certified Educator Level 1 exam. At the time, achieving Google Reference School status was not on our radar, but our vision was to improve skills sets of both teachers and students.

To prepare our staff for the Google Certified Educator Examination several training methods took place. This began with in person training sessions for all employees on the Google Suite of applications. We utilized our professional learning mornings to complete these training sessions. Additionally, online training sessions were also provided to employees to reinforce their learning. And lastly, after school optional training sessions were held for employees.

As we moved through the process of training and testing employees, we began to investigate becoming a Google Reference School. We reached out to one of our partners ForEdTech who had partnered with us to become a Google Edu school initially. With the number of teachers we were supporting through the testing process, the only other hurdle that we had was to do some clean up with our Chromebook licenses. Once that was accomplished, we were on our way through the application process.

Group Study Session with Teachers, Non-Teachers, and Leadership

Model the Way

Working with a solid IT/Innovation team allowed us to model the way quite easily. All of the team committed to writing the test early, and some even took the Level 2 examination. In addition, the leadership team committed to writing the test as well. Studying alongside teaching and non-teaching staff, leaders were right there every step of the way! This provided an environment for staff to feel like they were supported. Additionally, this speaks to our school mission of “Everyone Learning Everywhere”, where we promote continuous learning. Not just words, but what we live and breathe everyday.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

Encourage the Heart

This one was an easy win for us. Our staff knew that having better GSuite skill sets would equate to better student skills sets and better student learning outcomes. If it is one thing I can say about our community, is that when it comes to being better for our students, our staff are always all in. Another learning of the heart for some teachers was test taking anxiety. For some having to test caused anxiety, and thus began a reflective process for test taking

Photo by Balaji Malliswamy on Unsplash

Challenge the Process

There were two ways we challenged the process in our journey. The first is that we aimed for 100% of our staff to take the test, even though only 20% of teachers are required to pass the test, we wanted to aim much higher and set a new standard. Although we did not reach 100%, we are still continuing the process this year, as we train staff and provide opportunities for testing. The other way we challenged the process was by requiring our non-teaching staff to take the test. When most people think of GSuite for Education, they think students and teachers. However, our non-teaching staff uses Gmail, GSheets, GDocs, and the list goes on. It only made sense to provide them with the opportunity to test. This also created the notion that the school, in its entirety was in this journey together.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Enable Others to Act

What was great about this journey was that we were able to provide testing times at school for staff to come in and write the test in a comfortable environment. As this first wave of staff passed the test, we utilized them for further training with others. It became less about the IT/Innovation and more about the staff themselves. This process has created many Googly members of our staff. A side benefit is that it has taken the stress off our team as staff are able to solve many questions themselves, or help each other out.

In Conclusion

We are proud to announce that as of February 2020, ISC has been recognized as a Google Reference School. This unique distinction brings with it many benefits for our school. First and foremost, we are now seen as a leader in the use of the Google Suite and Chromebooks, and as such, will be a reference point for other schools in the region.  It provides us with an official online brand for our ISC website and a presence in the official Google Reference School online directory. We have the opportunity to be used as an example in Google events openings for other schools in the region. Also, the opportunity to test new Google products before they are introduced into the market. And lastly, we may be featured in the Google Reference School official newsletter. This distinction also ensures that ISC will continue to push the boundaries of innovation through the use of the Google Suite and Google products.

The End and The Beginning

LINK to SlideDeck with full teacher interviews and project information, including reflections and student evidence


Moving into the 2019-2020 year I knew that a growth area for our school was Digital Citizenship (DC), especially in the elementary panel. There had been some work around DC in the past, but never in an organized and logical manner. When I met with the elementary leadership team it was decided to utilize the lessons from Common Sense Media on DC. In the middle school we also decided to use the lessons from Common Sense Media. The Head of PE is Common Sense Media Certified and had been using the lessons prior. These are well organized, backed by research, and tied to the ISTE standards. 

We decided to start with grades 3 to 5 as these students use devices regularly. In grade 3 students are introduced to Chromebooks and they continue to use them through grade 5.  For the purposes of this project, I will be speaking to my experiences with grades 3 and grade 5 and the student learning that took place around the digital citizenship lessons and the ISTE standards. With these grades, I had the opportunity to co-teach many of the lessons and be part of the classroom experience. The grade 4 teachers were teaching the Common Sense Media DC lessons as well, but I did not co-teach those lessons, as I have children in two of the three classes.

Photo by James Toose on Unsplash

Anticipated Impact

One of the first things I noticed about our ES students at ISC was that many of them had cell phones. Of course they were not allowed to use them during the day, but as soon as 3:30pm hit, phones were out of bags and students were on social media, namely WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok. Common Sense Media rates WhatsApp, 14+, Instagram 15+, and TikTok 15+. So I knew we had some work to do, with both students and parents. This being the first time Digital Citizenship lessons were being introduced in a formal way into the ES classrooms, I knew we had nowhere to go but up.

The anticipated impact for grades 3-5 was simply: to have them think about their actions, have planned conversations around digital citizenship and social media, and begin to make small changes in their behaviour.  Additionally, it was to have them go home and have conversations with their parents around Digital Citizenship and their use of Social Media.  To encourage parents to be part of the process, I co-presented with our Literacy Coach to parents on Literacy in a Digital Age to raise awareness with the parents about the importance of literacy and the impacts of screen time, and to send parent home with conversation starters.

The intended outcome in introducing these lessons and this program would be that over time we would have more conscientious students and parents when it came to Digital Citizenship and Social Media. Furthermore, this would be part of helping to create a school where these learnings and expectations were part of ISC culture.

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Reflections on Project

Unfortunately, I did not reach my goal. The goal from the outset was to get through all six lessons for grades 3-5. Unfortunately, we only were able to get through half of the lessons before we went virtual and left campus.  My original plan was to take the last three lessons and begin filming parts of them, along with student interviews now that the students were comfortable with me in the classroom. On the bright side, we got through 3 of the lessons, and I have good relationships built with the teachers and students; a good jumping off point for next year.

The project would have never have launched without the buy in from grades 3-5 teachers. Time is always precious in an elementary classroom, so these teachers not only had to see value in what was being proposed, but also allow their spaces to be opened up, so I could co-teach alongside them. I initiated the conversation by reaching out to grade level teams and asking to join one of their meetings. There was no resistance from any of the teams, which is great. Additionally, as mentioned above, I met with the middle school advisory team, and brought the grades 6-8 lessons to them, these were also incorporated into their program this year.

For me this certification has not caused me to move away from traditional approaches, but reinforced my belief and resolve to do so. I would consider myself a non-traditional educator on many fronts; I don’t believe in testing, I believe in authentic, student driven assessment, I think feedback is more important than scores, and I believe in standards referenced grading. COETAIL has provided many opportunities to put this into practice, and to open up a dialogue with other educators around this belief.

Next year I would like to collaborate with the teachers and develop a pre-assessment for the classes prior to starting the official lessons from Common Sense Media. This of course would be to assess where the students are, but also to help me to begin to build a relationship with the students.  Additionally, I would add in a reflection tool at the end of every lesson. This would be to better assess the learning that took place, and where gaps might exist. Then allow us to re-teach and reinforce key concepts.

Some of the lessons have extension activities for home, but I think more targeted follow up after each lesson with our families would be a great extension activity. As I mentioned earlier, the Literacy Coach and I did present to parents, but that only reaches those parents who chose to attend at the school. By sending home extension activities or conversation starters for the home, and putting these in our LMS, the reach would be further, and hopefully keep the conversation and learning going at home.

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Future Thinking

Our school has not formally adopted the ISTE standards, as a Leadership Team, this was our year to “play with them”, so to speak. With so many grades in ES and MS using these lessons, and they being tied to the ISTE standards it makes sense for us to move forward with them. Additionally, we have recently hired our first Curriculum Coordinator for ISC, which is highly exciting, and she is on board with these standards as well. We have spoken about ISTE certification too, which will be powerful for our school.

Another way that my knowledge will continue to thrive will be with mentorship with our Design and Tech Integrationist, as well as out IT Team.  Models such as TPACK and SAMR have been shared with our integrationist and she is now using them to help her frame lessons/units. As we are a small school, from time to time I utilize our IT team for trainings with staff. Teaching them about design principles has helped immensely in how they design and deliver material. Additionally, two of the concepts from Deep Learning conversations that were impactful were PBL and Design Thinking. Both of these are incorporated into how units are planned at our school.

For me the greatest learnings to come out of this experience was the growth of my Professional Learning Network and the realization that there is never an end point in the journey. The ideas, concepts, Twitter chats, materials, and camaraderie to come out of this will help me continue to grow, and to challenge what I do. 

Community Connections

One of the great things about taking on my COETAIL certification is the connections with educators in my cohort, past COETAILers and other educators from around the world.  For me, the primary way I have done this is through Twitter and LinkedIn. When I publish a blog post for #COETAIL it is pushed out through a variety of social media platforms, and this, of course, increases my reach. Subsequently, this has allowed me to make some great connections and increase my Professional Learning Network. The other main avenue for me to stay connected and increase my PLN has been through Twitter chats, which I quite enjoy. I like the fast pace, the fury of creativity, new ideas, and the way hashtags allow you to keep your conversations curated.

Leveraging Twitter to grow my PLN

Let me dive into some examples of my community connections over the last several months. The first one is a Twitter chat called #WhatisSchool, this one is led by Craig Kemp, who is a well known edtech consultant.  You can find a copy of the tweets below in my Wakelet collection:

January 16, 2020 – New Year, New Decade – #WhatIsSchool – Twitter Chat

This chat was at the very beginning of 2020 and focused on a discussion around goals for 2020 and our vision for the year. My how things have changed since this Twitter discussion!

The next Twitter chat I want to reference is #AppleEDUchat which is hosted in the Americas, Europe, and Asia Pacific by Apple Distinguished Educators around the world. This particular one grabbed my attention because of the co-host David Lee who I worked with at Korea International School. David is doing some great things around design thinking and definitely worth a follow on Twitter. At our school we have a tech integrationist who is newer to the profession and I have been able to connect her with David which has really helped her program. Here is a Wakelet of my tweets during that chat:

Feb 3, 2020 – Design Thinking – #AppleEDUchat – Twitter Chat

The next Twitter chat is from Australia, and called #tlapdownunder. This particular chat I happened to stumble on about a year ago. I am an early riser and one Sunday morning as I was checking my Twitter feed I happened to scroll across this chat and just hop in. It has since become an almost weekly part of my Sunday morning routine, and allowed me to connect with many educators in the Pacific.  The lead on this chat is Karen Caswell, give her a follow on Twitter if you are not already. This particular chat was lighthearted and involved captioning several photos of animals in action, from an educational lens. You can see my tweets here in this Wakelet collection:

February 23, 2020 – Caption This – #tlapdownunder – Twitter Chat

Here is another #tlapdownuner chat that I participated in. The theme of this one was “Spin the Wheel”, where each question was a clickable GIF that had a spinning wheel of questions. Quite a unique approach to a Twitter chat. You can find my answers below:

March 29, 2020 – Spin the Wheel – #tlapdownunder – Twitter Chat

On April 5th, I had the opportunity to host #tlapdownunder. When I originally signed up, I was going to design my questions around innovation, but since we had moved into virtual learning, I thought an interesting topic might be to look at education in a post Covid world. The conversation was rich and engaging, you can find a link to a wakelet below with the questions and some of my responses to participants:

April 5, 2020 – Education in a Post Covid World – #tlapdownunder – Twitter Chat – Hosted by Ryan

Another Twitter chat that I have had the privilege of helping to grow is #pubpdlatam. After seeing the success of #pubpdasia while living in South Korea for 4 years, when I moved to Brazil, I knew this was something that I wanted to grow here. I was able to connect with Frank Hua from International School of Panama and we got the ball rolling. We have co-hosted a couple of #pubpdlatam chats, and most recently connected with Shaun Kirkwood to host #pubpdlatam, #pubpdamericas chat on Reimaginijng Education Post Coronavirus. We were able to leverage the great work of Carlos Galvez and the work of #pubpdglobal . You can find a Wakelet with the chat here: 

April 16, 2020 – Reimagining Education Post Coronavirus #PubPDLatam #PubPDAmericas – Twitter Chat – Co-Host

Connecting with COETAILers!

On March 25th, I had the opportunity to get together with some members of my #COETAIL11 cohort. Although the meeting took place during my morning and I was beginning my work day, I was able to drop in for part of it.  The purpose of the meeting was to share successes around our virtual learning programs. Some of us were beginning our journey, and others were weeks in. And of course in the end, what did we all agree on “We should have done this sooner”. A copy of the conversation can be found here:

March 25, 2020 – COETAIL Meet Up – Distance Learning

School Rubric

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to write an article for an organization called School Rubric whose goal is to “help international schools, educators, and families make the best choices regarding enrollment, staffing, relocation, and best practices”. The Managing Director, Wallace Ting, asked if I would be interested in presenting to fellow leaders about our Virtual Learning Program at ISC. On April 11th, I made a presentation on our VLP to 20 other administrators from around the world. This was a great way to share the experiences of my school, answer questions, and here how other schools are designing their online learning programs. You can find a copy of the presentation here:

April 12, 2020 – School Rubric Administrator Presentation – Best Practices and Challenges in a Virtual Learning Environment

While working in South Korea, we hosted Joe Brooks from Community Works Institute, a professional development organization for K-16 schools. They do work around place based service learning, equity, social justice, and socio-emotional learning. Our work with them while in Korea, focused on place based service learning growth opportunities for our MS/HS students.  Since that time I have stayed connected with Joe and become a member of the collaborative.  Most recently, Community Works Institute hosted a conference on Teaching for a Community without a Classroom. I was asked to give a presentation on Digital Tools for Innovative Virtual Learning.  You can find the program and slides below.

Welcome Program – Teaching for a Community without a Classroom

Digital Tools for Innovative Virtual Learning

In Conclusion

It wasn’t until I started tracking my connections that I realized I had made quite a few in 2020 given all the challenges. These connections, however, are what have made these challenges surmountable. I have gained all kinds of support, good ideas, and general and specific feedback. And I have felt like I have been able to help others along in their journey. I am interested to hear from others on how they grow their Professional Learning Networks, and of course, any good Twitter Chats that you participate in.

The Baker’s Dozen: 13 Reasons to go International

Photo by Frank Vessia on Unsplash

Recently, I read an article on LinkedIn by Ryan Sagare, entitled 13 Reasons to NOT go International as a Teacher. I felt that the author had some good points, but also felt that I could refute every point that was made. Below is my attempt to do so. Working internationally has been a fulfilling experience for both myself and my family, and I would not change this for the world. Hopefully you get this sense in reading through this piece.

1. The Business Side of Education Becomes Clear

While it may be true that some schools are out for profit, some simple research will allow you to know what type of school you are walking into. By using services such as International Schools ReviewSearch Associates, or International School Services, you can find out how a school is structured and how they use and distribute money. This information might be available on a school website as well.  Furthermore, if you do attend a job fair, you can ask the individuals who are there representing the school. If working for a not-for-profit school is an important factor for you, this information is readily available.

While there may be situations where a contract is signed and a job is no longer available due to enrollment, this situation can happen anywhere, not just internationally. Having worked in the public system for 10 years prior to going international, there would be instances where you were told you were teaching certain courses or grades, to only find out your role would be different due to enrollment being down. One good question to ask in the interview process is to find out what enrollment has been like in the school over the last 3, 5, or 10 years. Additionally, if you are walking into a specialized position (math coach for example), you could ask how long the position has existed in the school and how long it is predicted to be in place.

2. Finite, Two Year Contracts

I see far more positive in this structure than negative. No school wants massive turnover. The cost to hire new educators is immense for a school. From payment to a candidate database service (e.g., Search Associates), to flights to a job fair, the costs can add up for a school. In addition, there are the hidden costs of turnover: lost productivity in bringing new people up to speed on school initiatives, or loss of productivity while administrators travel for job fairs. This situation puts pressure on the school to provide solid contracts with good benefits to teachers in order to prevent turnover. This, I believe, is a huge benefit to the teachers themselves. Furthermore, when you do sign on for contract extensions beyond the first two years, most schools offer some type of re-signing bonus.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

3. Lack of Diversity

While the author is correct, international private schools do have some of the wealthiest clientele attending their schools. So while schools are lacking in diverse socio-economic backgrounds, diversity can come in many forms. International schools attract students from around the world, thus making them culturally diverse. Also, some schools offer academic and athletic scholarships to local students who would otherwise not be able to afford the school’s tuition.

The author is correct regarding leadership positions in international schools; most of the leadership positions are filled by older white men. However, I truly believe a change is upon us. More and more women and people of color are entering leadership roles and/or looking to enter leadership. To determine if a prospective school is part of this change, candidates can simply look at the school’s website and see who is sitting at the leadership table. At my previous school, we had a female as the Head of School, the Elementary Principal, and the Director of Teaching and Learning. Additionally, three people of color sat on the leadership team – the Middle School Associate Principal, the High School Associate Principal, and the Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning. At my current school, there are three women at the leadership table – our ECC Principal, our Elementary Associate Principal, our Director of Finance, and one person of color: The Director of IT and Innovation.  Next year, we will add a female Elementary Principal and a female Curriculum Director.

Furthermore, in my experience in the public school system, there existed systemic racism and sexism. Those that held the most powerful positions; superintendents of school boards, are older white males. This entrenched discrimination will take decades to eradicate in order to see a change in the face of leadership. One of many examples of this occured to me when I obtained my first leadership position for the district, I was working on the Safe and Inclusive Schools Team, whose mandate was to work with schools to promote anti-oppression workshops and support teachers with embedding these themes into their practice. Once a month, all the leaders from the board gathered together for a system wide meeting, this would be all the Principals, Associate Principals, and those working at the district office. In a district like ours, which at the time had 90 schools, you are looking at a lot of leaders in one room. The first time I walked into the meeting I was shocked that I could count the number of leaders of color just by scanning the room. We had many teachers of color in the district, but they were just not getting the “taps on the shoulder” like their white counterparts.

4. Politics and Helicopter Parents

The author makes some good points here. However, these points could be applied not only to international schools, but all schools in general. Public schools, Charter schools, Religious schools, etc., all face politics; politics have always been a part of education.

Take for instance the current landscape in my home province of Ontario. All of the teachers’ unions in the province are currently exercising job action as they have not been able to reach a contractual agreement with the province. This has led to lost teaching hours, a loss of learning, and loss of pay for teachers. Furthermore, while I was teaching in Ontario, I witnessed firsthand the power that school board trustees possess. Trustees in Ontario are voted into their positions by citizens and are not required to have any experience in education. There have been many calls to dissolve the school board trustee system and replace it with something more tangible and equitable.

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5. Exchange Rates and Local Currency Fluctuation

While the author makes a good point about Brazil (I am currently living there right now), there are far more instances of the exchange rate working in the favor of international teachers. For instance, at my last school, 75% of our pay was in US dollars, so local fluctuations were null and void. Additionally, some contracts have clauses written in them to protect against this fluctuation, whereby, should the local currency fall, adjustments are made to guarantee a base level of salary.

Being paid in US dollars whilst living in developing or third world countries allows foreign educators to potentially save a great deal of money. Being smart with your money and setting up a savings and investment plan can allow for a stable financial future.  Additionally, one of the reasons many international schools structure payments to be partially in US dollars and part in local currency is so that you save your dollar salary and expend your local salary in the host country.

6. More Classes to Prepare Than Agreed Upon

In my international experience this has never happened without consultation with the teacher first. If it is agreed upon, there has been an increase in salary for the teacher upon taking on new classes.  In my experience and that of many of my colleagues, there is ample time during the day to prepare for classes. This extra preparation time is because students attend not only homeroom, but also a larger range of specialist classes than they would in public schools. For instance, most international schools have specialist teachers for physical education, music, visual arts, world languages, host country language and culture classes, and often science and technology classes. When students attend these classes, classroom teachers have ample time to meet with colleagues, engage in professional development, and both prepare for future lessons and assess student work. I will add the caveat that my experience has been in larger more reputable international schools, and that this may not be the case with smaller start ups.

7. Missing Out at Home

While it is true that you miss out on certain events and family milestones, such as the birth of a child, visits do tend to make up for lost time. Let me share a very personal example. When my family and I were living back home in Ontario, our best friends lived about a ten minute drive away. I admit, we took this situation for granted and maybe saw them a handful of times a year. Now that we are international, when we return home for the summer, we end up seeing them three to four times a week over a one month period with many more visits than we experienced when we lived “at home”.  Oftentimes birthdays and other significant events are ‘re-celebrated’ during our visits home. If you have children, it is not hard to convince them to celebrate a birthday for a second time!

I also find that living abroad serves as an opportunity for friends and family to come visit. For many of them the places where we live and work may not have been on their travel radar, but it provides them a new place to seek adventure, or to stop in on their way somewhere else. Both schools I have worked at have been supportive when a family emergency took place. While it is definitely harder to get “back home,” I have found schools to be supportive in this regard.

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

8. Lack of Infrastructure

From my experience, international schools are perpetually working to improve their infrastructure.  This is partially to be competitive in the international school arena. For profit schools usually improve buildings, classrooms, and resources on a yearly basis. Not for profit schools fundraise and solicit donations from alumni, corporations, and parents. Although infrastructure upgrades at not for profit schools may not happen yearly, they are often a purposeful part of the school’s long term development plans. As mentioned above, questions about infrastructure and improvement plans can be asked about during an interview.

In my four years in South Korea, the campus saw upgrades to the elementary, middle, and high school buildings, the center for teaching and learning, the edtech workroom, main athletic field, weight room, and a variety of other spaces. In my time in Brazil, we have seen upgrades to middle and high school buildings, early children’s center, a new design and innovation lab/science lab, and plans for a new elementary building, and current fundraising efforts for a new theater. Classroom furniture is regularly replaced when it is no longer functional.

It is probably unfair to make a comparison, but my experience abroad has been a stark change to the reality of the public system back home. While there were new schools being built due to our district being one of the fastest growing in the country, there were also schools who had not seen any types of upgrades in years. The public schools I worked for had older equipment and furniture, and there were even schools struggling with asbestos issues and union lawsuits.

9. Inconsistent Leadership

The trend that I see in international schools is that leaders are being asked to sign three year contracts, as opposed to two year contracts like teachers. This is a major step in improving the consistency in leadership. Most intelligent, forward thinking, strong leaders, understand that three years is not long enough to accomplish their job and so tend to stay at least four to five years. In my experiences leaders at the schools I have worked at have stayed at least three years, which is what they signed on for. In many instances at these schools, leaders have stayed on longer.

The schools that I have worked in have aimed to avoid the notion of “suitcase curriculum.”  Most schools follow American, British or international curriculums and are regularly involved in reviews of what is worth learning within these curricula. Schools most commonly use Atlas Rubicon and/or Google to document and store curriculum that will live beyond the current teaching and leadership teams. Knowing that international teachers can be transitory, most quality international schools have systems and plans in place to ensure program and curriculum sustainability.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

10. Lack of English Support

It is true, and something exciting about international schools, is that there are often a large number of students and parents who speak English as an additional language (EAL). Of course more support for these students and parents is always welcome. However, in comparison to the support available in public schools, there is adequate support for EAL students in most international schools. Speaking personally, my wife was an EAL teacher in a public school in Ontario. She had over 85 students on her portfolio from grades 4 to 8. At our current school, an international school in Brazil, there is an EAL teacher for grades 2 and 3 and another EAL teacher for grades 4 and 5, as well as an EAL class for students who arrive at our school and need to first develop social and survival English. There are also free English language classes for parents after school. While their children are in after school activities, parents can attend English classes if they so choose.

Additionally, living in a country where your first language is not spoken can be an incredible growth experience. All you need is an open mind. While living in Korea, my family and I learned survival Korean and were, for the most part, independent in our lives outside of school. At our current school in Brazil, our daughters have become fluent Portuguese speakers in just over a year. The opportunity to learn a new language is a definite bonus of living abroad.  See #12 below for more on this!

11. Lack of Support for Kids with Learning and Physical Disabilities

When I taught back in Ontario, I always taught classes that were popular with students. I was known as a “firm but fair” teacher, who cared for kids, and thus my reputation caused students to want to be in my classes. Class sizes for me of 30-32 students were not uncommon. Supporting students with learning and physical disabilities was challenging due to the sheer number of children in a room. Like many other public school teachers, I had some support from a Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT), but once in the classroom I was solely responsible for differentiating instruction and supporting students with any special learning needs.

International schools typically have much smaller class sizes and this can make it more manageable for a teacher to differentiate instruction and assessment. In the schools I have worked in, the classes in elementary have ranged from 15-20 students and have a learning assistant in the room to support teachers and students. Class sizes in middle school and high school can be even smaller. Once I taught a middle school class that started at 8 students, and moved up to 12 students by the end of the year. Individualizing instruction and giving support was much easier, compared to the classes of 30+ back home in the public system.

12. Language Barriers

This is part of why one would choose to go international. The appeal of learning a new language and immersing yourself in a new culture are part of the experience. Every school that I know has a foreign staff support department. As the author states, this support may diminish as your tenure at a school grows. However, this is natural, as new teachers come in, it is up to you, a more experienced teacher, to learn how to navigate your new home.

By my fourth year in South Korea, we barely interacted with the foreign support department, as our knowledge of the language and culture had grown significantly. We felt confident dealing with a majority of issues ourselves. As we enter year two in Brazil, I find the same thing happening; as we learn the language and culture, we become less reliant on our foreign support department for help.

Additionally, in most schools, the foreign teachers create a strong community characterized by various support mechanisms. In South Korea, we were all members of a closed Facebook group which was used to ask questions about doctors, purchasing cars, paying parking fines, planning social events etc. In Brazil, it’s a WhatsApp group that is used to support each other.

Including local teaching staff in your social circle can also help with language and cultural barriers.  Often, local staff are more than happy to correct your cultural blunders and share a good laugh with you. Overall, your mindset is what makes the difference.

Photo by Jason Weingardt on Unsplash

13. Never Planting Roots

I believe roots can be planted wherever you choose to make a home. It is definitely unfortunate that the author had to move so many times, but in my 3 international posts, I have had 3 places to live. One piece of advice I would give to those moving internationally, is to make your house or apartment feel like a home as soon as possible. Put up decorations, hang paintings, bring your children’s stuffed animals, etc. This will make your space feel like a home and make you feel like you have roots.

This may sound cliche, but home is where the heart is. You make a home where you settle, and planting roots for a long period of time is overrated for some. Some people enjoy moving around on a regular basis. Furthermore, instead of planting roots, those who want to embrace adventure and personal growth through travel will thrive in an international setting. This is part of the attraction in becoming an international teacher, to have a sense of adventure and be able to adapt and grow from new situations.

In Closing

When I started writing this article, Coronavirus had not hit our continent, nor country yet. As I write this conclusion things have drastically changed. Coronavirus is here in South America, and in Brazil. We are currently in week two of our Virtual Learning Program, and I am happy to be where we are in Curitiba, Brazil. We have kept most of our routine and have the resources we need to live happily. We were given the option to return home to work, but our family felt that this was our home, and this was the best decision for us. I still strongly believe in teaching and living abroad, with all its ups and downs, I feel that the positives of personal and professional growth, far outweigh the negatives. I look forward to keeping this discussion going through social media.

Zooming into our Virtual Learning Program

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Zoom has been getting so much attention lately, for obvious reasons, and I wanted to share some of our experiences, and our resources, to help those that might be thinking about using Zoom, or just starting to use Zoom. We are currently in week three of our Virtual Learning Program (VLP). You can find this HERE.  Thus far Zoom is serving our purposes, and we have had no security issues, and minimal classroom disruption issues. Our students were able to pick it up very quickly, but more importantly, our parents were too. My hope is that everyone can find something useful in this blog post as we all continue to learn about Zoom.

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It was just over four weeks ago, the tail end of Carnival Break here in Brazil, where our Head of School (HOS) called an emergency meeting for our School Wide Leadership Team. Honestly, that meeting seems like a lifetime ago; so much has happened since that time. Schools in the East, including China, Hong Kong, South Korea and others had been closed for weeks and we knew that our time might come. It had been a great Carnival to that point, we had friends come and visit who were travelling the world, and had spent lots of time catching up with them. But when our HOS scheduled that meeting I knew that things were about to get real for us.

Our first challenge was to get a Virtual Learning Program in place (linked above). We were lucky in the sense that many schools had gone virtual before us in Asia, and that there were a slew of resources already out there. Furthermore, schools were very willing to share resources and experiences to help us move forward. We were connecting with leaders via email, zoom, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Over the last weekend in February as Carnival Break was coming to a close, some of us spent our weekend, writing our Virtual Learning Program.

Once school went back in session a few days later everything had changed, we now had a rough draft of a Virtual Learning Program, and we were meeting daily as a Leadership Team. In addition, I was tasked with leading the tech training for our staff to get them prepared for the VLP. In leadership we talk about being agile, or adaptable, or flexible, as a great and necessary trait. When I look back on the last month, that agility would be something to rival the greatest contortionist of our time. Initially, I had trained all our staff on using Google Meet, but after some initial student trials (while they were still on campus), we decided to move to Zoom. I recall signing the contract on the Saturday before our last face to face week with the students. On Sunday, our IT team deployed Zoom to devices and designed training sessions, and on Monday we trained all of our staff. By Tuesday, teachers and students had downloaded Zoom and were practicing for what was to come. It was an impressive feat.

Now I will say that we did not start with free accounts, we opted for the 4 month “special” for those schools participating in Virtual Learning. This upgraded us to pro accounts for all of our teachers. Our non-teaching staff and our students are using basic accounts. However, all of our emails use the same domain, and thus we pulled them into our account for greater control.

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Zoom Tools

There are several ways to use Zoom, for example through, and there is even a Chrome Extension. However, it should definitely be downloaded to your machine for smoother operation. I have put together a set of instructions below on how to download zoom to your machine, access through the web, add the Chrome Extension, and schedule a meeting: Introduction to Zoom

The user controls for Zoom are powerful and give a teacher much control over their online learning environment. Such features as starting with video on or off, who can chat, the ability to transfer files, requiring a password upon entry, who can screen share, and attention tracking, give the teacher the ability to teach positively in an online environment. Some additional features which are great for the classroom are polls and breakout rooms. Breakout rooms have been a massive success with our middle school and high school teachers as it gives them the ability to break the class into smaller groups, thus allowing for small group discussion. The teacher as moderator can move freely in and out of the rooms as well, and bring students back to the larger group. 

HERE is a great slidedeck that we produced on how to set up breakout rooms. Credit goes to Hansa Narang for this one, if you are not following her on Twitter, you should be! HERE is a slidedeck that we produced on all of the configurations mentioned above, and classroom management tips and tricks.

Zoom itself has some great resources, some of which can be found below:

Manage Participants

How to Zoom Youtube Channel

Zoom 101: Breakout Rooms

Zoom 101: Polling (In-meeting)

Zoom 101: Manage Participants (In-depth) 

How to use Waiting Rooms to Manage Office Hours & Drop-In Visitor Times

School Administrator’s Guide to Rolling Out Zoom

For those of you operating on ipads, HERE is a great video from my friend Steve Katz who is an EdTech Coordinator at the International School of Kuala Lumpur. The video takes you to his blog, where he has tonnes of useful stuff. If you are not following him on Twitter, you should be.

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Admin Panel

The Dashboard is extremely handy as it provides you with all kinds of statistics including active users, number of meetings, and how much storage you have used. As admin you have access to all of the meeting statistics too, attendees, when they signed on and off, even the type of device and headphones they may have been using.  Each user can pull this data as well, but if Principals or other Leaders are looking for attendance at say a staff meeting or parent session, Zoom administrators can easily pull this data. Admin on the account also control the users, as I mentioned we purchased pro licenses for the teachers, and because our students use the same email domain, we pulled them in to our account through activation emails. This allows us tighter controls during scheduling and meetings. Some key areas of control for admin; (thinking in a school context), who can chat, muting upon entry, who can share screens, breakout rooms, virtual backgrounds, and remote control (which we have enabled for our IT team), attention tracking, and waiting room. There are also several key security settings, including controls over profile pictures, two factor authentication, and signing in with Google. HERE is a link to Zoom’s Admin Panel help, with a full list of everything an admin needs to get started.

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Zoom is not infallible, I am sure we have all heard of Zoom Bombing, the act where random people show up to your Zoom meeting, at best, it is an annoying interruption, at worst, these individuals can be rude, and highly inappropriate. On April 2nd, CEO Eric S. Yuan issued a blogpost to users, found HERE. In 3 months time they have gone from an average of 10 million meetings a day to 200 million meetings a day, and they have added 90,000 schools worldwide to their customer base. Given this, they have had to act quickly to service schools who were never their real customer base, as they mostly serviced corporate clients. Embedded in his message is a blog post on best security practices for Zoom, you can find that HERE. They also just recently published THIS blog post around Zoom and Encryption for Meetings/Webinars.

Additionally, HERE is a post that Zoom pushed out regarding their compliance with GPRD. I admit, I am no expert in GPRD compliance, but if this can help those who fall in this jurisdiction, then great.

Zoom also responded to their sharing of data with Facebook, that has now removed this. Article HERE

HERE is another ISC produced resource on suggested security settings for our staff in order to give them maximum controls over their meetings

Just released April 9 – Securing Your Zoom Meetings, with updated settings.

Here are a couple of articles I recommend pertaining to security:
Using Zoom while working from home? Here are the privacy risks to watch out for
Using Zoom? Here are the privacy issues you need to be aware of

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Looking Onwards

What I have provided is only the iceberg of the information that is out there regarding Zoom. At time of publishing, a Google search of “Zoom Video Conferencing” produced almost 52 million results! When you look at how the usage rates have increased, mentioned above, this only makes sense.  The media spotlight is going to highlight everything that Zoom is doing both good and bad. Zoom has a tremendous challenge over the next few months to keep up with this watchful eye, especially in the area of security. If you have any resources to share around Zoom, please do share!

The Potential of Blockchain

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If you had asked me about Blockchain a year ago, I would not have been able to tell you a great deal. In fact, I assumed Blockchain was synonymous with cryptocurrency, and that was about it. It wasn’t until a chance social media encounter with a former student that my eyes became open to the true potential of Blockchain technology.

Before I dive into my current perspective on Blockchain technology, for those that are new to Blockchain here is a little breakdown on what exactly it is. A Blockchain is, in the simplest of terms, a time-stamped series of records of data, which are not able to be altered, that is managed by a cluster of computers not owned by any single entity. Each of these blocks of data (i.e. block) is secured and bound to each other using cryptographic principles (i.e. chain). In essence, a Blockchain is a digital ledger that stores transactional history. It can be used to record any type of exchange, for example the distribution of a will, health records, or property sales. 

Here are a couple of introductory videos on Blockchain technology to explore further:

Understanding the Blockchain in Two Minutes

What is Blockchain Technology?

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The Possibilities

What has been fascinating for me, is learning about the possibilities of this technology, and reading about current success stories. Furthermore, this technology has the potential to level the playing field in a number of industries and sectors. What I mean by that is Blockchain has the capacity to eliminate certain social and economic barriers that have existed for some time.  Imagine a world where citizens have true access and control over their personal information. This information, could then be shared on decentralized apps (eliminating the middleperson), and allow information to be transferred to financial, insurance, or health institutions. Or, imagine charitable organizations or fund raising campaigns being able to eliminate intermediary banks which take valuable funds away from these institutions, which are intended to help those in need.  Or, imagine property and car rentals that are executed through a digital ledger, with immutable conditions being set by the owner, again eliminating the middleperson. The possibilities for this technology are immense.

Below are a couple of articles outlining successful use cases. I believe these are worth sharing and exploring further:

Inside the Jordan refugee camp that runs on blockchain

Refugees at the camp do not have to worry about carrying cash, as Blockchain technology is being used to move digital currency vouchers. This system has significantly improved efficiency as well as reduced costs of managing the system.

Starbucks testing blockchain to empower coffee farmers

The use of Blockchain technology will allow Starbucks to track the origin of beans and confirm authenticity throughout the supply chain. Additionally, this will improve on the financial compensation that farmers currently receive. 

Photo by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

Blockchain In The Classroom

Life is truly amazing. As I mentioned at the start of this post, my foray into Blockchain started with reconnecting with a former student through LinkedIn. He had posted an article through LinkedIn about Blockchain, and I was interested in what he was doing, so I reached out. This led to a Zoom chat, and further discussions. He currently works for the Blockchain Learning Group. The Blockchain Learning Group is an organization out of Toronto that specializes in education programs around Blockchain technology. From their website: “The Blockchain Learning Group facilitates experiential learning-based education programs to support the innovation and design-thinking objectives of schools and organizations globally. Our programs not only help to build a strong technical foundation but also provides the opportunity to make an immediate impact with the lessons learned”. The Blockchain Learning Group is the sister company for Convergence Tech, a digital transformation company, also based in Toronto. Convergence Tech has worked on some tremendous projects utilizing Blockchain technology. For example creating an app to allow goat herders in Mongolia to register their cashmere bales. The app also utilized Blockchain technology to allow users to trace the source of cashmere and ensure sustainable production. 

Besides running hackathons and workshops for high school students, the Blockchain Learning Group has developed an online course for students to learn about this technology, through the lens of social justice by utilizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. At the International School of Curitiba, in Brazil, we decided to offer the course as an elective for grade 9 and 10 students. We have four grade 10 students who are currently enrolled in the course. They will learn about the origins of Blockchain technology, current uses, how the technology works, and programming skills. The students are also responsible for identifying a current problem related to the UN SDGs, and developing a solution involving Blockchain technology. We are excited to offer this to our students, and see this as an opportunity to teach for the future.

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I have focused on the positives of this technology, and there are many, but no new technology comes without risk. I am sure that many people are thinking of the word trust.  For the Blockchain to function, there has to be a great deal of trust put on the system managers and developers. Additionally, the standards are underdeveloped and there are no mature standards addressing distributed ledger technology. These are currently in development, but nothing has been solidified yet. Another risk is the maturity of the code itself.  In a distributed ledger technology environment, smart contracts are executed based on the code that they contain, in most cases as agreed to on the date executed with little room for future amendment. Although this unalterable nature is the core strength of this technology and enhances trust amongst parties, it also needs to be mature enough to be well understood by all parties as well as enforceable by law.

With all that being said, I am optimistic about this technology. I admit, I am very new to it, and am continuing to learn, but if it can help level the playing field in a variety of industries, then it is worth exploring. Some of the use cases have given people on the margins of society a voice, and this is a game changer. I am most eager to hear what others think about Blockchain and experiences that they may have had.

Note: a special thanks to @adamjlemmon and @akme_c who provided some of the above resources.

Thoughts on System Change

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Change brings about uncertainty, which brings about vulnerability. Vulnerability and uncertainty can be unsettling for employees and other stakeholders in an organization. In my case, in a school setting, system change impacts not only the employees (teaching and non-teaching staff), but students and parents as well, and potentially other community members. Remember, most people need stability to see their path; their future in the organization, so any type of change, whether big or small, brings about an unsettling feeling. The challenge when you are leading change is not only to manage the change itself, but more importantly to manage people through the change. Essentially system change = people change.

Before landing at the International School of Curitiba (ISC), I knew I would be responsible for researching and launching a new School Information System (SIS). For those of you not in the world of education, a SIS is used to manage a vast range of student data. SISs provide capabilities for registering students in courses, documenting and tracking grading, transcripts, building student schedules, taking and tracking attendance, demographics, and many other student related data needs in a school. This system is accessed by all stakeholders in a school community, including teachers, administrators, secretarial staff, students, and parents. Introducing a new SIS was to be the biggest project that I had undertaken in my career, and would impact so many facets of the school.

A couple of key pieces of information in regard to our unique situation at ISC. First, we ended up purchasing three products from PowerSchool (PS); their SIS, their Classroom Management System, named Unified Classroom (UC), and their Enrollment Software. The Classroom Management System would replace Google Classroom (our current system). UC is intended for teachers, students, and parents. It is used to load assignments and class materials, for assessing these assignments once students are complete, and as a feedback and communications tool between teachers, students, and parents. 

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We launched our new SIS, PowerSchool, in August 2019, but our journey towards this launch started in August 2018. It began, like any large undertaking should, with a great deal of research.  The IT team narrowed the three SISs that we were going to examine down to three choices before we started our research. These were Rediker, PowerSchool (PS), and Veracross. We chose these three for very particular reasons; Rediker, because ISC had examined it the previous year and already started a conversation with them about a partnership, PS, because they were a leader in the global market space, and I personally had experience with them at my previous school, Korea International School, and lastly, we chose Veracross because they were also one of the top SISs in the global marketspace and we knew several other International Schools that had success with them. After over 80 hours of research (which included visiting schools using these programs), we ended up selecting PS. Our presentation to the Leadership Team can be FOUND HERE. We chose PS for several reasons: the variety of services provided, the global reputation, their cutting edge technology, and the price point.

The early part of 2019 was spent in our implementation phase as we prepared to go live with the system, introducing it to parents, students and teachers.  I don’t want to spend too much time speaking to this part of the process, because that is not the focus of this blog post, but in terms of the SIS and UC, the training and preparation was fairly smooth. It involved many online sessions with PS experts, and we even had a trainer come out to ISC for 7 days to spend time with select stakeholders. The student enrollment piece was not as smooth, and is still in the development/implementation phase, but that story is for another post. Secondly, along with implementing three new pieces of software, we also made the shift from a traditional grading system to standards referenced grading.

For the remainder of this piece, I will use a framework on system change to shape my writing. The Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change by Timothy Knoster has been around for quite some time and is a trusted framework for developing, shaping, and evaluating system change.

We went live with PS and UC in August 2019 during all staff training, prior to students returning to school. Over the course of the semester, there was much training that took place for students, parents, and teachers. This training took many forms. For teachers, we had them in a sandbox, or practice classroom, prior to going live, we had in person training at staff meetings and after school sessions, and we created a website with videos and other resources and training materials.  For students, we pushed in to classrooms to train them, and as we trained teachers, relied on them to train students. For parents, there were many morning and evening sessions to teach them the new system.

In looking at the Knoster model, if all of the pieces are in place, a system change will be “successful”. I will say, that “success” is going to look different for everyone and is often hard to define. But if you had asked me at the start of the school year, I would have defined success with PS and UC as a smooth launch, the capacity for all stakeholders to feel comfortable with the software, and our shift to standards referenced grading to integrate well with PS and UC. By the end of first semester (December 2019), I believe that the launch of PS/UC could be labeled a success.


The vision started before I even arrived at ISC. The need for system change was set forth by our Head of School (HOS), Dr. Michael Boots, who knew at the time that the current SIS was not robust and practical enough for a growing school.  Additionally, with the shift to standards referenced grading, the school was going to need a SIS that was responsive to this requirement. He had shared this vision with the school wide leadership team, who in turn had shared it with their departments/divisions. When I arrived at the school in August 2018, my job was to share in this vision (something that I had already done through the interview process), and to continue to paint, and bring to fruition, this vision for the school. I believe that this was one area where we did extremely well, as Knoster points out, without a vision and end goal, people are led to feelings of confusion. I will wholeheartedly say that leading up to and during the launch, the vision was extremely clear, and articulated on numerous occasions. As Dr. Boots often says: “You cannot over-communicate”.

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Incentives is an interesting word for me.  Merriam-Webster defines incentives as: something that incites or has a tendency to incite to determination or action. According to the Knoster model without it, as an organization we experience resistance to change.  In our situation, much of the incentive had to do with buying into the vision as set out by the HOS and myself, as well as the division principals, and other school wide leaders. There was no monetary bonus or raise for engaging with the system change, but there was the simple fact that we were making the move because it was better for all learners. Incentive in this case, in my opinion, had more to do with internal motivation than anything else. In this vein, that is where some of the challenges came from.  As we know, you will never get 100% buy in on any initiative. If you have the support of the majority, then you are good to move forward. And for those that were late adopters, this is where having difficult conversations comes into play, and the leadership team is tasked to speaking with those individuals and sharing the vision again. Once a shared understanding was reached, those late adopters were able to move forward.

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The Knoster model points out that without resources, there can be a sense of frustration. From the IT team’s perspective, we knew we were on a tight budget with training and this was the main resource that we required to get the job done. We had a trainer come to ISC to train a small group of teachers, administrators, secretaries, and the IT team. We also felt that Time was another precious resource, especially as the deadline approached. This was one area that we did not have to struggle with as we had started the process very early and PS helped with a detailed timeline to launch.  One of the other resources that we tapped into was other schools in the country and region that were currently using PS. These human resources were extremely helpful, especially as we got closer to our launch date when we actually went live. For our staff, students and parents, we developed a PS and UC Website that was full of resources from PowerSchool itself, and ones that we have developed to support learning such as step by step tutorials. As the IT team became more comfortable with PS and UC we became the main resource for teachers, and this was a tremendous help.

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The anxiety around lack of skills hit out team well before we launched.  Being a high functioning group and being seen as experts, our IT team obviously wanted to preserve this reputation. As soon as the decision was made to move to PS, the three of us who would be largely responsible for PS/UC started to develop our own training plan. We knew as part of our purchase package we would have training from PS, but we wanted more, so that we felt 100% comfortable as the face of PS for ISC. We requested online sessions with other schools in the region who were experienced PS users and in March 2020 two of us will attend PS University. That being said the focus for skills was not our team, it was the students, teachers, and parents. In our orientation training, prior to the school year beginning, we were given 8 hours to train staff. This was a large allotment of time, given the fact that total orientation time is usually about 32 hours before the students begin school. We utilized the expertise in the IT team, as well as the teacher experts who had been trained while the PS trainer was on site.  Additionally, we used Professional Learning mornings and after school sessions to continually train teachers and be responsive to their concerns. Beyond this, we were readily available in our office for teachers, students, and parents. We have an open door policy in IT (This is literal, when I joined the team, I removed the door to our workspace). With students, we held sessions in the first few days of school to acclimatize them to the new system. With our teachers feeling more and more comfortable, they naturally became the first point of contact for students. As for parents, this was the most challenging group to upskill. This is mostly due to the fact that face to face contact can be a challenge. The first obstacle was actually getting the parents to set their new logins for the system. Without going into all of the details, it took us 10 weeks after going live to get about 90% of parents to sign into the system. Our goal was 75% of parents at the 12 week mark. I know this may seem like a long time, but this is after countess calls, emails, and in person sessions. Once we had them in the system, the next step would be to upskill all of them. This was done through multiple daytime and evening sessions, as well as utilizing our PS/UC website and filling it with parent resources, including print, slide-decks, and videos.

Action Plan

In working with a large company such as PowerSchool, that has launched systems many times over, part of our action plan was taken care for us.  Once we started training in the system and setting up the database, there were weekly check ins, and a complete checklist to follow. The portion of the action plan that we developed was the actual internal launch.  This is one area that I think we could have improved on, and if I am ever involved in systems change again, I would have this mapped out in more detail. I always had a plan in my head as to what roll out would look like, but unless this is regularly, and clearly communicated to all stakeholders, then bumps in the road can arise. As I mentioned earlier, there were many sessions for students, parents, and teachers, but I would have laid out the roadmap in detail beforehand so that everyone had a window into my brain. Essentially, having a detailed calendar for all stakeholders would have reduced a great deal of anxiety.

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Final Thoughts

If you are to walk away with one idea from this reading, it is that system change equals people change. This is why whether the change be in your department, division, school, or district, it is always a challenge. People are complex beings and bring a plethora of experiences, ideas, and expectations to any workplace. What you, as a leader, or leadership team, may deem as good for the organization, might prove as problematic for individuals within that organization. To add to this, most people are resistant to change, because they tend to operate in their comfort zone. We know that people grow the most when we can move them out of this comfort and disrupt their thinking. So when it comes to change, even if we know its good for the organization and people within it, we are going to face some resistance. This is why it is imperative to do your research, plan accordingly, and share that plan, upskill your employees, provide them with necessary resources, and be sure to communicate frequently about the change.

Final Project

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Next semester I will be co-teaching a grade 7 robotics course with our Design and Innovation Specialist at our school.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, our Design and Innovation Lab was newly opened this year, and our Design and Innovation Specialist is new to our school this year.  She is also fairly new to the teaching profession, in her third year of teaching, and thus, this is a good opportunity for me to push in, and bring some of the great learnings from COETAIL to her teaching repertoire and the students. Our school operates on a 6 day cycle and this grade 7 class will meet twice a cycle, each class being 80 minutes long.  Additionally, these grade 7s will have had some exposure to robotics and coding as they took a mandatory class last year for a quarter. During this quarter class, they had some basic exposure to the Lego Mindstorms.

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Knowledge and Skills

The options I am currently working through are whether to use Sphero’s or Lego Mindstorms with this group, or a combination thereof.  Last year, these students had exposure to Lego Mindstorms, but the challenges were minimal and not authentic in any way. The students were not taught through any problem solving frameworks, nor were any standards used for assessment, as the course was strictly a “Pass” or “Fail” situation. One process I would like them to walk away with understanding is the Design Thinking Framework and a deep understanding of how to use it, not only in robotics, but applying it to other situations, problems, or challenges. Additionally, since they had some exposure to block coding through Lego Mindstorms last year, I would like them to walk away with a deeper understanding of block coding through more complex and authentic challenges.

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ISTE Standards

The ISTE Standards I plan to use throughout the semester are as follows:

1a – Students articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process itself to improve learning outcomes

4a – Students know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems.

5c – Students break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving.

5d – Students understand how automation works and use algorithmic thinking to develop a sequence of steps to create and test automated solutions.

I chose these ISTE standards for several reasons. I chose “1a” as we have discussed time and time again, it’s so important for students to be able to reflect on their learning and their process, and in fact, it’s part of our Design Thinking process used at our school. Additionally, I chose “1a” because students are expected to set learning goals and monitor how they achieve them (or don’t), a skill much needed in the 21st century.  Standard “4a” appealed to me because of the “deliberate design process”. We will be using the Design Thinking process in our class to drive this standard. Standard “5c” was chosen as students will be expected to break their design challenges into parts, and will be expected to solve complex problems. Lastly, “5d” was chosen due to the automation and computational thinking aspects of the course, and its applicability to the Design Thinking process.

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Applying Learnings from COETAIL

As I briefly mentioned above, I would like to apply the deep learning concepts that we have been learning about throughout course 4. All of our units will have some design thinking and PBL elements as part of the unit. We know that deep learning takes place when students have voice and choice in their learning, the learning contains success criteria, that continual feedback is part of learning, that teachers partner with students to build efficacy and grit, and that students have opportunities to construct new knowledge. I plan to use all of these elements at one point or another throughout the semester. Some of the other aspects of deep learning that I plan to incorporate are the step towards teacher as designer of learning experiences. This is where the opportunity to work through a problem, creates a unique learning experience for the students. Also, the idea that the teacher learns alongside the students is fundamental to this course. What makes challenges exciting in robotics is the notion that no student will solve that problem the same way.

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Why This Unit?

As I mentioned, I have not drilled down to one specific unit as yet, that is the current challenge. I know I will be co-teaching the robotics class for the semester, and that we will be using either the Sphero Robots or Lego Mindstorms to teach the kids. I am even thinking that we may start the semester with the Sphero’s, and as the students progress, move them onto the Lego Mindstorms. We will be mapping out the units as we move forward throughout the semester. HERE is an example of one unit that we have been working on, framed through the Common Ground Collaborative Framework. The units we develop for the course next semester will follow the same organizational structure.

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Evidence of Learning

Some of the obvious evidence for this course would include examining student code for the different design challenges and in some instances, measuring their success, or whether they are able to pass the challenge. As I plan to incorporate the Design Thinking Framework, evidence of learning may include ideation notes, a variety of prototypes, and final versions of work.  Most importantly, student reflections are an exceptional way to understand their thinking throughout the process and hear in their own words what exactly they learned. Additionally, it is an opportunity to hear from them on how they dealt with setbacks or mistakes; where the deepest learning takes place. We have shifted from Teacher Led Conferences to Student Led Conferences at our school. Students create a Google Site and provide evidence of learning and reflections on their learning on the Google Site, and use this as a discussion starter when their parents attend. This shift from teacher to student has provided the platform for great discussions when parents come to the school, as well as forming a portfolio for their learning journey at ISC.

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My concerns are not necessarily about the unit redesign, as I feel confident in that department. I believe I have a good grasp of the standards and the technological knowhow. But having been out of the classroom for over a year, there are some concerns there for me. Being responsive to the learners in the room in terms of their needs is something I need to be aware of.  Keeping in mind that I need to meet the students where they are, not where I expect them to be. Additionally, classroom management is something I need to be aware of. Our school is known for having boisterous students who like to engage in their learning. It’s important that I have good structure from day one in order to keep them focussed on the learning.

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Shifts in Pedagogy

I have already spoken to the fact that I plan to incorporate Design Thinking and Project Based Learning into this course. They are frameworks that provide opportunities for deep learning. Additionally, I know I will need to shift towards allowing more reflection time in my classroom. I have a habit of finishing a unit of learning, and then wanting to push forward to the next unit of learning. Being sure to create time for students to not only reflect, but share their reflections through their portfolios, is something I must be conscious of.

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New Skills

The first obvious skill that students will be cultivating will be to code. I am thinking about this in a more broader context of algorithmic thinking, problem solving, and computational thinking.  The ability to problem solve, and more importantly, having the determination to continually push through challenges (grit) are 21st century skills that all of our students require. What do they do when the code does not work? Is the first thing to say “Sir it doesn’t work?” Or is it to try again, look up an answer (use your resources), ask a friend? Building within them the ability to “fight through” and try several different approaches is important. Other skills that I see being further developed are communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively are essential in any classroom. Some of our challenges will be done individually, while others will be in groups, so being able to communicate and collaborate are key.  Collaboration is a skill. We often put students into groups and ask them to collaborate, but have they been taught what that means? In many instances they have not, so it is up to us to do so. Lastly, critical thinking skills are essential to problem solving and Design Thinking. Again, students are expected to do this, but we do not teach them how to. Solving problems, empathizing with others, asking “how” and “why” are all great starting points for thinking critically.

Final Thoughts

I am definitely looking forward to jumping back in the classroom, after being away for a year. It will be great to co-teach with an energetic young teacher, and I am sure I will learn just as much from her, as she will from me. I am definitely eager to read about my fellow COETAILers plans for our last course!

Deep Learning

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This week is an opportunity for me to revisit some concepts that have had a huge impact on me not only as a teacher, but as a leader, and a coach.  There are two big ideas from the reading that I want to focus my post on, that is Project Based Learning (PBL), and Design Thinking(DT).

Project Based Learning

I have been a fan of Project Based Learning since I first discovered it 6 years ago at Korean International School. I have had the opportunity to structure learning experiences using this framework, as well as teach fellow educators how to use PBL elements and structures in their own classrooms. Project Based Learning is a powerful structure for driving learning in an authentic manner. HERE is a great video from PBL Works as an introduction to the framework of PBL. The PBL Works website also has some fantastic resources to get started with PBL. HERE is a direct link to their explanation of the essential parts of a Gold Standard PBL. Lastly, HERE is a presentation that I created for educators as an introduction to PBL.

Essential PBL Elements –

Project Based Learning in Action!

One example that I would like to speak to is from my time as a grade nine East Asian Studies teacher. One of our topics of study was World War II from an East Asian context. My first year teaching the course, we had the students simply write research essays, but after learning about PBL, we decided to structure it using the PBL framework the following year. Additionally, we worked with grade nine English teachers, as we wanted to structure the PBL as a transdisciplinary assessment.  We started with an idea, rather than an essay, students would get a picture from the time period we were studying with the Question: “What story does this picture tell”? The students were responsible for answering this question through a book expert based on one of the characters in the picture. The key Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings were clearly communicated at the beginning. They were responsible for a narrative of one of the characters, not an entire novel, but an excerpt from a novel, that would be backed by good historical research. This one very broad question, would lead to Sustained Inquiry through research and further questioning about their character. This was Authentic as it is a similar process that a historical writer might go through. Students had Voice and Choice, as they chose their photo, and had complete autonomy over their characters narrative, as long as it was backed by research. When we introduced the PBL we laid out over 50 photos for a 20 student class and asked them to browse the photos and find one that spoke to them. There were many opportunities for Critique and Revision as the students met with both English and Social Studies teachers, and each other for feedback.  There was a Public Product at the end, as we had a showcase, in which students would display their book excerpt, research, and an artifact from the time period (which they created) to an audience of classmates, parents, and other teachers, who would act as investors and decide if they would invest so they could write the remainder of their book. And when the PBL was complete, we had built in Reflection so that students could assess what they learned and how they would approach things differently the next time.

Design Thinking Tiles (Stanford University) – Images by ISC

Design Thinking

The article Design Thinking in Education does a good job of providing a brief overview of the Design Thinking Process. One sentence that sums things up quite nicely is “Design Thinking can be flexibly implemented; serving equally well as a framework for a course design or a roadmap for an activity or group project”. There is also a nicely laid out infographic, which explains things succinctly for those who are diving into DT for the first time.  If you are looking for some additional resources on Design Thinking I suggest David Lee’s Website on Design Thinking. It is well laid out, and David has and is doing some great work with Design Thinking. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had had the opportunity last year to travel to the Stanford dschool and participate in their 3 day deep dive course on Design Thinking. This was an excellent opportunity to learn concepts on Design Thinking and bring them back to ISC. 

Adam sporting his wearable art from our ISC Rapid Prototyping lesson

Design Thinking in Action!

When we returned to ISC we were excited to share our learning about DT with the rest of the school. One of our professional learning structures is Professional Learning Mornings, every Monday, from 8am-9am, with students arriving an hour late at 9am. We attended the training at Stanford in August, and when we returned, were given 8 PLM sessions with staff who were interested in learning about DT. The structure of our PLMs is to give people choice, so DT was one choice of many, but in the end we had over 40 people sign up for the 8 week session.  With so many people signing up, we decided to split our session into two groups, as four of us had been trained, so we could split the group easily. Our very first session was a rapid prototyping session in which participants had to partner up and create wearable art for their partner. This is a fun and friendly way to expose participants to all of the stages of the DT process. You can find our slidedeck HERE. After this first session, we took the next 6 and took a deep dive into each phase of the process, and ended up with a wrap up session. This has allowed the DT mindset to slowly permeate around campus. Additionally, we opened our Design and Innovation Lab this year for MS students and grade 9s, and all of the work is driven through the DT process. One further benefit to having non-teaching staff participate in PLMs is that we have seen parts of the DT process used in our Admissions, Marketing, and Finance departments. For example our Marketing department went through their own rapid prototyping exercise to generate ideas for campaigns to engage parents.

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Final Thoughts on Deep Learning

Over the past several weeks, we have been making our way through Fullan and Langworthy’s work: A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, and having great conversation around what really constitutes deep learning. We know that deep learning takes place when students have voice and choice in their learning, the learning contains success criteria, that continual feedback is part of learning, that teachers partner with students to build efficacy and grit, and that students have opportunities to construct new knowledge.

When we look at PBL and DT, they are both prime examples of learning frameworks that provide an opportunity for deep learning to take place. In the case of PBL, students are given a problem or question which leads to their autonomy in solving the issue. Success criteria are provided at the beginning of the project, and feedback is provided throughout the process to guide the learning, and help students with sustained inquiry.  As this feedback is provided, students are also given the opportunity to build confidence and construct their own learning through an authentic task. In the case of DT the students may be given the problem, but in some cases they may have to define what the problem truly is, as this is part of the process. Success criteria are often defined through the empathize phase of the process as students realize what their end user requires and work to design to meet their end users needs. Feedback can be provided on multiple levels in the DT process, whether from the end user, peers, or the teacher. This feedback is provided continually. Lastly, students have the opportunity to build new knowledge as their prototypes are designed to meet the end users unique needs, and they are given the opportunity to reflect on the process as a whole in the end.

I am interested to hear what others’ experiences have been with Project Based Learning, or Design Thinking, and their impacts on Deep Learning.

Thoughts on Courage

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The SXSW talk by Brene Brown started with two powerful questions around courage:

“Is courage the willingness to show up and be seen, even when you can’t control the outcome”?

“Is courage something that is inherent in us, or something we can teach and develop in people and in ourselves”?

These two questions caused me to pause and reflect on my own experience as a student, as a teacher, and as a leader. When I think about my own learning journey as a student, there were many instances when I had to show up, do my best, and be seen, even when I had no idea what the outcome might be. Instances like participating in business competitions, playing sports, or running for student council would not have taken place without the courage to take a risk, and put myself out there. Beyond this, there were educators who put time into my development, gave me feedback, and constantly encouraged me along the way. These factors directly tied into building my courage.

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Teaching Courage to Students

As a teacher, it the content that I was teaching has always mattered, however, it was all about the kids first, and building solid relationships with them. I learned this valuable lesson very early on in my career, and it has served me well since that time. During my first two years in the profession, I had the privilege of supporting at risk youth. These were students whose last stop before a juvenile facility was my contained classroom. I was young and very green, and had no idea what I was walking into.  These were students who just by showing up were exhibiting courage, something that took me time to realize as I learned each one of their stories intimately. I learned that it was a huge success for them just to get to school, and a huge sign of courage on their part. I also learned that it was my job to fill them with positivity, faith, and courage so they would build a successful pattern of attending school everyday. As I stated earlier, this philosophy of building courage in kids, stayed with me all the years I was in the classroom as a teacher. One quote that has always helped to guide this philosophy is: “Maslow’s before Blooms”, of course referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, being more important than Blooms Taxonomy. In a nutshell, kids need to feel safe, loved, supported and secure, before they can move forward with any type of learning.

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Coaching Adults

As a leader, I have found that this philosophy is just as important, if not more important than when dealing with students. People are the sum of their experiences, and those experiences are both positive and negative. It can be easy for us to forget this, and the fact that sometimes those negative experiences are holding them back from truly acting courageous at work. I find it is easier to fill in skills gaps for people in the workplace, but filling in the gaps when it comes to confidence, courage, and growth mindset are more challenging, and take more time; they require a long term commitment on behalf of the leader. One exciting initiative that we have recently started at our school has been coaching and the use of thought partners. Earlier this semester we had Jennifer Abrams here for a two day training on Creating a Coaching Mindset. This has provided a platform for us to coach each other and move each other out of our comfort zones. About 40 of us were trained as coaches, and we have all been assigned employees to coach. Teachers and Non-Teachers all have the opportunity to work with a thought partner who will push their thinking on any topic that impacts their work. This could be work related, or non-work related. HERE is a copy of our guidelines that we use at ISC for coaching.  We have moved away from the traditional system of evaluation and are using this system as a way to push people beyond their boundaries and build courage within them.

I want to share a couple of other resources that I found this week, and I think are of value. The first one, 11 Ways Leaders Can Help Their People Be More Courageous, written by the Forbes Coaches Council, is a great list. In particular, a couple of their suggestions tie in very nicely with our coaching philosophy above. One of the points is to ask good questions, and not give answers or opinions. When we act as thought partners, we do exactly that. We ask good questions, and help people find their own conclusions, answers, or ideas. The article also points to helping those figure out what matters to them. This is also a huge part of acting like a thought partner, as the answers are never given, but we coach them to understand what matters most, what do they want to work on for themselves and improve on. The second article, 4 Ways Great Leaders Can Build Courageous, Passionate Teams, written by By Bernadette Wightman, focuses on building courageous teams, but of course these can be applied to individuals too. The article speaks to opening as many doors as possible, and this is a great way to coach someone in order to build courage. Pushing people into thinking about all the possibilities that they may not have every considered is powerful. Most people don’t see how much potential they have, and a good coach will help them see this and have the courage to step outside their comfort zone. Another very recent article: The Benefits of Low-Stakes Teacher Evaluation, written by Emily Boudreau, speaks to the fact that evaluations completed by administrators are less impactful than peer to peer coaching and mentoring models. Furthermore, peer to peer coaching can serve more than just measuring performance. The ideas of building resilience, courage, and growth mindset come to mind.

I am very interested to hear what my colleagues think about courage, and how they build it in students and fellow co-workers.