Reflections from the 2018 Agile Mind Academy

“Mathematics has the greatest and most indefensible differences in achievement and participation for students of different ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic income levels of any subject taught in the United States.” Jo Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets

During this year’s Advisor Academy, Agile Mind brought together advisors that offer services for partners districts and used Mathematical Mindsets to ground our thinking for the week. The quoted text above was particularly eye-opening for me, and reinforced the importance of our work as we look to transform the teaching and learning of mathematics and science throughout our country. Vice President of Professional Services David Savage kicked-off the Academy with a session that made us think critically about the need to “double-up” our impact and pushed us to consider what we need to do to support more teachers and students. To help us achieve this bold vision, we use intense data-mining to help determine exactly where we need to go. As Agile Mind CEO Linda Chaput put it, if you want to build a garden, you need to watch where the people walk.

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To that end, we engaged in critical conversations throughout the week about how we can continue to impact change in science and math classes everywhere. Linda asked us to reflect on the resources that are available for aspiring doctors, lawyers, and engineers as they learn their craft, and wondered why the same quality of materials are not available to pre-service teachers. While I have often talked about how Agile Mind was developed to help improve achievement for some of our most vulnerable students, our organization truly values educators and looks to empower teachers with high-quality resources to achieve this end.

During this inspirational and informative week, we also had a chance to learn about cutting-edge research from leaders at the Charles A. Dana Center. This year, we took a ‘deep-dive’ on the concept of ratio, rate, and proportional reasoning. Susan May, Lisa Brown, Susan May, and Kathi Cook helped explain a big mathematical shift from elementary school to middle school, as students move from working mostly with additive relationships (how much taller is John than Matthew?) towards multiplicative relationships. In the common core state standards, sixth grade is where this major change in thinking happens, but many math teachers take this important shift for granted (ask any middle school teacher what topic students struggle with the most, and they will undoubtedly say, “fractions”). These leaders explained that students need to develop an understanding of ratios without using a fraction notation that can cause confusion, which was a major “ah-ha” moment for many of us.

We also had a chance to think critically about how to unleash all students’ power through differentiation with Abby Neumeyer. I believe now more than ever that we need to re-think our connotation of what differentiation really means and looks like in classrooms. Traditionally, many teachers have thought of differentiation as offering different tasks to different students. While this may be an effective method in certain limited situation, Abby encouraged us to instead re-think our definitions of what effective differentiation really is, and pushed us to ensure that we are upholding high expectations for every student.

I also cannot thank Abby enough for her dedication to make a professional services hub that will help empower our advisors moving forward.

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Joyce Boubel leading a session on serving emergent biliguals

Joyce Boubel led a thought-provoking session which highlighted that our public schools are becoming increasingly more diverse and more students than ever are emergent bilinguals. As such, it is crucial that we consider how to best support these students as they progress throughout their formative years. In collaboration with the Dana Center, Agile Mind has published research-informed best practices to best reach students learning the English Language while upholding high academic expectations for all students. Joyce shared many of these best practices, and feel free to read a summated version of this resource here.

Massie McAdoo also led an informative session on formative assessments, and highlighted this passage from Mathematical Mindsets: “[Paul Black and Dylan Williams] found something amazing: a form of assessment so powerful that if teachers shifted their practices and used it, it would raise the achievement of a country, as measured in international studies, from the middle of the pack to a place in the top five… if teachers were to use what is now called ‘assessment for learning,’  the positive impact would be far greater than that of other educational initiatives such as reductions in class size.”

Massie shared how every Agile Mind course program encompasses thousands of formative assessment items, many of which can be automatically scored and reported in real time, thus providing instantaneous, targeted feedback for learners while enabling teachers to use data to impact instructional decisions in the moment. One of the great things about working at Agile Mind is that we are always talking about scale. In fact, “to date, almost 4 million students have engaged more than 3 billion times with our embedded assessment tasks. Data on their experiences are used to enhance tasks to ensure they fulfill the promise made by assessments: that if learners have mastered the necessary knowledge, they will succeed.”

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Talking with Susan May from the Dana Center

Although this was my second time attending the Advisor Academy, it was my first time attending as a Senior Advisor. I was excited to share some ideas I had about leveraging social media to increase our outreach with school leaders, facilitate an NCTM-inspired ‘Ignite!’ session, and lead a workshop on best practices from the research of adult development theory; I can only hope that Dr. Drago-Severson would be proud!

Overall, it was truly an inspirational week with such a talented group of educators that are making a difference in schools throughout the country. After a busy two months, I honestly could not be prouder to be part of such an incredible team and I look forward to working and learning with them as we continue our critical work in improving our public schools throughout the country.

Exploring Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder

Cambodia was one of my favorite countries that I have ever been privileged to visit. I started my trip last month in Siem Reap, a small city in the middle of the country that has hundreds of well-preserved temples that are thousands of years old. Thousands of years ago, the city was called Angkor, a megacity that contained 0.1% of the world’s population at its heyday. Angkor served as the capital of the mighty Khmer Empire, an empire that was a powerful state in South East Asia. The kingdom was so large, in fact, that between the 9thand 15th centuries, the Khmer Empire covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

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Standing in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Exploring Angkor Wat, Bayon, and other structures around Temple Town was truly an indescribable experience. After all, “Angkor evokes the image of a giant palimpsest – like a medieval parchment erased and overwritten repeatedly. The capitals of the Khmer Empire were established here one after another, one on top of the other, almost continuously for over seven centuries, profoundly shaping the entire landscape. Over time, a dense and complex matrix was created, evidenced primarily by the spectacular succession of monumental temples. These grandiose structures made of brick and sandstone have survived the passage of time, unlike the greater part of the cities whose houses and palaces, built of wood and other perishable materials, have disappeared into the jungle leaving behind the skeletal remains of the Angkor civilizations seen today. Nonetheless, the remaining skeleton is so impressive that naturally everyone tries to imagine the temples at the time of their splendor, bustling with life and color” (Angkor Guide Book).

Angkor slowly started losing its influence during the 15th century. Although many historians still wonder what exactly brought down the mighty Khmer Empire, we know now that the neighboring Siamese kingdom in Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) conquered the kingdom during the mid-1400’s. The Kingdom of Angkor slowly drifted into irrelevance, until the French colonized “Indochina” in the mid-19th century. Cambodia was placed under French rule for almost a hundred years, until Prince Norodom Sihanouk (who claimed Angkor King lineage) won independence for his country. The United States, upset over his rise to power, helped Lon Nol set up a successive military coup, which led to a brutal capitalist form of government. Many Cambodians hated the US-backed Nol and supported an up-and-coming rebel group that called themselves the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge.

Under the brutal leadership of “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia on April 17th, 1975, immediately renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, and started a brutal genocide that tortured and killed anyone with alleged ties to the former government. By 1980, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were well-known: Pol Pot ordered the execution of two million of his own people (about one-quarter of the population), including 80% of teachers and 95% of doctors. Cambodia, as Pol Pot liked to say, was returned to “year zero.”

During my time in Cambodia, I humbly visited one of the mass killing fields and “Security Prison 21″ (S-21), also known as Tuol Sleng, “a former high school in central Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge had turned into a torture and death house. Vietnamese journalist and soldiers first walked in to find rotting corpses still in shackles. Gruesome torture implements lay about, and in an outbuilding the soldiers found thousands of pages of records, including photographs of the victims. At least 15,000 Cambodians had been taken there, tortured until they confessed to being an enemy agent, and then killed – whacked on the head with an iron pole” (Cambodia’s Curse).

Unfortunately, Pol Pot was successful in returning Cambodia to year zero, and the country has never fully recovered from its dark past: By the tenth grade, 87% of students have dropped out of school. In fact, most Cambodians today over the age of 35 have had little formal education; the average family makes about $3.00 USD a day, and Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Visiting this high school turned death camp turned genocide museum is an important reminder to all of us as to what can happen when we allow a narcissistic autocrat to separate families, make false promises, scapegoat immigrants and political opponents, lie to their citizens, and make a free press the “enemy of the people” (as a side note, we are often mortified when we look at the horrors of the past, but too many of us remain silent about the injustices being carried out in the United States of America right now).

Yet in the midst of this deep oppression, I somehow found myself at the most special place I have ever visited in my entire life: The LaValla School. Amongst all the devastating poverty and oppression that has long crippled the Cambodian people, lies one of God’s greatest treasures, where you can hear the laughter and feel the joy of the children from beyond the gates. The LaValla School is (somehow) the only government-approved school in the entire country of Cambodia that provides a full primary education to children with physical disabilities. Founded by the Marist Brothers over twenty years ago, the amount of genuine joy and happiness at this place is truly remarkable.

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The second I arrived at LaValla, students came running up to me and gave me a big welcome hug. One of the students took my hand and started showing me around the school right away; I have never felt so welcomed during any school visit in my life. To be fair, this place is more than just a school – it is a true community.

The Kingdom of Cambodia truly stole my heart this week. After decades of genocide, corruption, oppression, and extreme poverty, the Cambodians that I met were some of the most resilient and welcoming people that I have ever known. That being said, all of us are “guilty of romanticizing squalor and imagining that a simpler life must be happier and more content than our own. It is simply not true when the measure of that simplicity is no access to medicine, education or clean food and water . . . [yet] there is no denying the subtle charms of lives lived with a careful attention to the present and the everyday” (Walter Mason).

On the day of my flight back to Kaohsiung, I never cried so hard leaving a place in my entire life. Perhaps Mike Duffy, who visited the Lavalla School for two months last year, put it best: “I have obviously struggled to put into words the soulful beauty of life here, where God is ever so vibrantly present. It is something that I will do my very best to continue to share with you all, as this experience has already changed the man I am. With a filled heart and tremendous pleasure, I am adding some pictures to try to encapture LaValla, the children, and their joy to be alive.”

Thank you for a truly transformational week, Kampuchea! This school, these amazing children, and this beautiful country will be in my heart forever.

 

An American Abroad

This past memorial day, on my flight from Kuala Lumpur back to Kaohsiung, I had the privilege of sitting next to an active-duty member of our U.S. military currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan. During our four-hour flight, we had an incredible conversation that covered just about every topic, including the role of America’s military in 2018, the current geo-political climate of the world, and yes, Mr. Trump. The marine I sat next to told humorous, informative, and enlightening stories about being stationed in Romania, training troops in Bulgaria, and moving to Japan. Towards the end of the flight, I asked him what his current responsibility in the military was, and he talked about how, in his perspective, the U.S. military’s greatest strength is in soft diplomacy. He talked about the need for our soldiers to gain trust in foreign lands by getting to know the locals, understand their culture, and grow to mutually understand one another. Although we were the same age and had taken radically different paths in life, we both somehow ended up on the same flight, headed to the same destination, with the same goal in mind: to advance the virtues of the United States through the use of soft power.

Decades ago, Joseph Nye originally coined this term – soft power – in his critically-acclaimed work Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He wrote that, “if a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow… when one country gets other countries to want what it wants, [it] might be called soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” More recently, Nye has suggested that the “best propaganda is not propaganda,” and that “credibility is the scarcest resource.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believed in this vision, and advocated that the Bush administration consider “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development.”

Not a day passed by in these last eight months that I did not work hard to advance the soft power efforts of our country. As a cultural ambassador for the United States, I was invited to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, had an interview with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, and gave a presentation to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce. On a daily basis, I had the opportunity to interact with ordinary people that have never met an American before. I visited at least one high school (in Tainan) that told me that I was the first American to ever visit their school. On many occasions, I was asked representative questions about the United States, and while I always strived to be welcoming and open to dialogue, I always made it clear that I was sharing my opinion, as there is no such thing as a representative American perspective. In truth, I was trying my hardest to avoid the danger of telling a single story.

I also had the opportunity to visit the cold war outpost of Kinmen and even played basketball with students that are living in a former warzone – talk about true soft diplomacy! Kinmen (formerly known as Quemoy) was the site of the last battles of the Chinese civil war, and was later shelled heavily by the PRC’s Liberation Army throughout the 1950’s. The Taiwanese island is so close to the mainland that my cell phone network automatically switched to a mainland Chinese phone carrier! This trip also served as an important reminder of the urgency to study our history so that we may never repeat the mistakes of our past. For me, I still question how I somehow have made it through 13 years of public education (and an additional 8 years of university) without every hearing about the role Quemoy and Matsu played in the Taiwanese Strait Crisis.

Speaking of learning about our past, I also saw the atrocities of war first-hand when I visited Vietnam. Unlike many conflicts, including World War II, the Vietnam War ended in the 1970’s. This means there are millions of people still alive that remember the war like it was yesterday, and one cannot walk a single block in Ho Chi Minh without seeing someone that has been negatively impacted by Agent Orange. It was sad standing at the War Remnants Museum, next to captured American tanks and airplanes, and asking whether all these deaths, destruction, and birth defects were worth it. At the time, many Americans subscribed to the so-called “domino theory,” and believed that if one country were to become communist, all of Asia would quickly become communist. In hindsight, it is clear just how wrong many of those leaders were in our past. In some ways, America in 2018 in similar to America in 1968, because during the war, “the United States was widely unpopular around the world, as it is now… Yet despite unpopular government policies, our openness and self-criticism allowed the American idea to retain its appeal. A free press, independent courts, and a Congress willing to confront the executive branch can provide a similar measure of soft power today.”

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Standing at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City next to a U.S. Army helicopter captured during the Vietnam War.

It frustrates me to no end when people accuse me of being anti-military because I am anti-war. I have the deepest respect for our armed forces and will be forever grateful for their sacrifices. But we must question, why do we constantly get involved in meaningless conflicts that put our brave soldiers in harm’s way to begin with in the first place? My grandfather, who meant the world to me, served in the Korean War. While we only have a few photos of him during this time period, look at how happy he looks when he is with his fellow Koreans. I particularly love the photos of him standing with Korean children. To me, I have no doubt about it: my grandfather fundamentally believed in the idea of soft power, and worked hard to win over the hearts and minds of the Korean people.

In fact, I was the first person in my family to visit the Korean peninsula since he was honorably discharged almost 70 years ago. Standing in the de-militarized zone and briefly walking into North Korea was an experience that brought many personal feelings to bare. I can only hope that he would be proud of me.

Nothing, however, was as powerful as visiting Hiroshima.

At 8:15am on August 6th, 1945, a U.S. army B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and our world was changed forever. It was surreal being one of the few Americans to ever walk around the atomic bomb dome and the Peace Memorial Museum, and I was at a particular loss for words when I was standing directly underneath the hypocenter of the bomb. When visiting the memorial, it was interesting that the memorial did not solely blame the United States, but rather both countries, for putting their egos in front of the lives of innocent citizens. For me, the hardest part of the day was visiting an elementary school that survived the initial impact, where a majority of the young students were killed instantly.

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“I heard what others have said about Hiroshima. Now I have seen for myself, and I am utterly devastated.” -Desmond Tutu

While visiting Hiroshima was without question one of the most difficult places that I have ever been to, there were many difficult conversations I had throughout my time in Asia. When I met with Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce, I told her how difficult it was being asked questions about the current administration or our country’s absurd obsession with guns everywhere I went (I encourage all of my fellow Americans to read an op-ed I wrote that boldly declares that our problem with gun violence is #NotNormal). Truth be told, I was asked questions about school shootings and Trump on a daily basis during my time abroad, which were unequivocally the hardest to answer as a representative of our country. It is not necessarily because of Trump’s policies, as I am all for a political disagreement – dissent and diversity of thought and culture is what truly makes America great. Truth be told, it has been embarrassing to be an American abroad during the so-called era of Trump. Simply put, our president does not represent our country well, and respect for America around the world is in an objective freefall (well, except for in two countries: Russia and Israel). As I told our Assistant Secretary last month, it has been hard serving as a cultural ambassador for the United States during this tumultuous time period under an administration that does not believe in soft power.

Why has it been so hard answering question about Trump? Maybe it is because he praises dictators while he is incredibly hostile with our closest allies. He openly mocks disabled people, and makes lewd remarks of women. His Secretary of Education knows nothing about schools while his EPA Director has repeatedly abused his authority. After complaining for years about how much golf President Obama has played, he has played more golf than any other president. Trump and his administration lie about everything, including paying off people that he had had affairs with and meetings during his campaign. He is a proponent of separating vulnerable families at the border and wants to widen the death penalty for drug dealers. He calls African nations “sh*t-hole countries”   and calls immigrants of color, “animals.” And to put the figurative sprinkles on top, he neither believes in the power of soft diplomacy nor the mission of the Fulbright Program.

On the contrary, I have seen the innate power of soft diplomacy first hand. I have gotten to know so many amazing people, in a part of the world that is greatly misunderstood by the west. I have come to have a deep appreciation for Taiwanese hospitality, and the importance of standing up for what is right.

At the end of the day, the “greatest threat to the American idea is what we may do to it ourselves. Terrorism is like jujitsu: The small players win if they make the large player use his strength against himself. If we respond to terrorism by becoming less open—economically, socially, and politically—we lose. As George Kennan warned in 1946, at the start of the Cold War, the greatest danger that can befall us is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Here is my charge to my fellow Americans: We can do better. Scratch that, we must do better. I encourage you all to get your information and news from objective news sources, such as BBC and NPR, and stop watching outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, or FOX. If you have the opportunity, travel abroad as much as possible, and strive to really get to know the people of foreign countries and their culture and way of life. Try to listen to others more, especially people that do not look like you or may have different worldviews. Push your thinking by watching documentaries and reading books and attending local lectures and talks. Perhaps most importantly, reflect critically on your belief system, and constantly ask yourself why you believe what you believe. If there is anything that I have learned in my first 27 years of life, it is that people are people everywhere. At the end of the day, everyone I have ever met wants their family to be healthy, their kids to be successful, and to be treated fairly and justly. Is that too much to ask?

When President Obama visited Hiroshima, he reminded us that, “we have long known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a [better] world.” Perhaps I am an eternal optimist (and pacifist), but I fundamentally believe that we can make this world a better place if we try. I mean, why not aim to create good instead of evil? Why not look to make peace instead of war? Why not try to spread love and compassion instead of hate and arrogance?

Now (especially now) is the time for an effort like never before to achieve peace.

Let us all take hands.

This post is dedicated to Anthony Bourdain, someone that knew how to travel and celebrate life better than anyone. He worked relentlessly to show us that we should not be afraid of strangers in our global community, and that people are people everywhere. Thank you for inspiring so many people (including myself) to take this world by storm, Mr. Bourdain. 

Taiwan truly is the heart of Asia.

A bit of madness is key
to give us new colors to see.
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us!
So, bring on the rebels,
the ripples from pebbles;
the painters, and poets, and plays.
And here’s to the fools who dream…
crazy as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that break…
here’s to the mess we make.

It was a hectic couple of days leading up to my departure for this incredible journey. After a snow day, an emotional last day at East Side, and a truly surprising going-away party (thank you mom, dad, and Kim!), I was off to Asia to embark on the opportunity of a lifetime. I was super excited about visiting Japan and moving to Taiwan, but I also became sad about leaving home (for really the first time in my life).

As I sat on the plane, I reflected on leaving everything and everyone that I knew behind. I started to realize exactly what I had gotten myself into, as I was about to move to a country where I did not speak the language, personally knew nobody, and could not even read a menu. After enjoying the in-flight service and reading for a while, I decided to watch a movie, and happened upon La La Land, a movie that claimed the Oscar for Best Picture last year (well, for two minutes, at least). I felt that the beginning of the movie went slowly, and the only reason I did not turn it off was that I was stuck in an aluminum tube for the next twelve hours. I quickly fell in love with La La Land, as it intimately shows the often-untold sacrifices that people need to go through to chase their dreams. And that was before the audition scene:

In a weird way, it was almost like Emma Stone was speaking to me. Other than perhaps Stand By Me, rarely has a Hollywood Blockbuster ever had such a profound impact. I genuinely do believe that traveling is essential “to give us new colors to see,” as Ms. Stone so eloquently sings in this scene. Perhaps most importantly, she reminds us the importance of always striving to approach new situations with an open mind, as “who knows where it will lead us?” Watching La La Land reassured me that everything was going to be alright, and I was ready to take on this world by storm!

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At the Fo Guang Shan (佛光山) Buddhist Monastery in Kaohsiung.

After landing at Narita airport right outside Tokyo, I was excited to visit Japan and see Asia for the first time. On my first morning, I got up at 3am to get in line for the Michellin-starred SushiDai restaurant, which was hands-down the best sushi I have ever had in my entire life. After visiting four major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima) and falling in love with Japanese culture and their way of life, I was off to my Fulbright destination: Kaohsiung City, Taiwan.

My first month in Taiwan was really busy, as I had a lot of logistical things to take care of, including securing my apartment, completing all of my immigration paperwork, and adjusting to my new life for the next six months. After meeting my advisor, new colleagues at Kaohsiung Girls High School, and grabbing lunch with some former Fulbrighters, I was off to Taipei to speak at the Fulbright mid-year conference. After touring around the capital of Taiwan for a week, I was so honored to be invited to celebrate Chinese New Year with Michele’s family. During the holiday, all of the schools throughout Taiwan shutdown, and many of my friends took advantage of the extended break to travel internationally. February was definitely the hardest month to get through. Although I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Olympics and watch our women’s hockey team beat Canada to earn a gold medal, there were a lot of tough transitions to get through along the way.

You see, living abroad for an extended amount of time is an incredible experience, but it is not always rainbows and unicorns as Instagram would make us believe. As they told us during our Fulbright orientation, culture shock is a real thing, and there are times when it can be very lonely traveling by yourself (although I always try to make the best of every opportunity). The time change was difficult working through, too, as I almost always had to FaceTime with my friends and family in the morning before they went to sleep. Traveling to Asia also emulated what it must be like to be illiterate, as few signs (outside of airports and subway stations) are in English. On more than one occasion, I ordered something random from a restaurant with no English menu (which was almost always delicious, for the record, but is still an anxiety-causing experience). I may have learned 一點中文 , 我不台外說中文 , but I can still only read about 40 or 50 Chinese characters.

Once March rolled around, I had a bunch of school visits lined up and ready to go. I have learned so much about Taiwanese culture and have grown to love many aspects of this special country. I will definitely miss all of the incredible hospitality, amazing food, and ‘futuristic’ transportation options. I spent every Monday learning from the incredible educators at Kaohsiung Girls High School and enjoyed our weekly “Subway” meetings. I have come to really look forward to every Monday, as we had the chance to talk about education, politics, and yes, even gun violence (a future blog post will consider my thoughts about being abroad during this tumultuous time period in American history). On a serious note, I really cannot thank Hsin-Wei Chen [陳欣薇], Yi-Fan Chen [陳怡帆], Yi-Hsiang Chang Chien [張簡逸翔], Jia-Wei Sun [孫嘉偉], Hsun-Hsun Chung [鍾恂恂], and Hsien-Tsung Lin [林憲聰] enough for everything they have helped me with. 謝謝!

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With this awesome crew during a “Subway Meeting” after an observation at KGHS

During the Spring, I had the chance to speak at a plethora of conferences and visit a few other countries, as well. The longer I was in Taiwan, the larger my network grew, and I was soon invited to visit schools in every major city. I really appreciate Mr. Chen [陳光鴻], who is leading the effort to implement Phenomenon-Based Learning throughout Taiwan. I held focus groups in Taichung, taught math lessons in Kaohsiung, and visited vocational schools in Tainan. I watched students riding unicycles in Kinmen, and met Taiwanese President Tsai ing-wen in Taipei. Over time, I slowly acclimated to Taiwanese culture (and yes, I had plenty of amazing Taiwanese food at all of the famous night markets throughout the country).

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Taiwan is special for countless reasons, but my favorite part can be summarized in three words: mindfulness of others. Although most social norms around personal space can be quite different in Taiwan, people often act with others in mind instead of only thinking about themselves. Take something simple, like letting people pass on an elevator: in the U.S., there are signs everywhere that tell people to stand to the right and let people pass to the left, but people still do not listen. In Taiwan, it seems as though everyone automatically does the right thing to make life easier for everyone else, and it is like that for everything. You can take a nap on a crowded MRT, because people are quiet. Once on the subway, people never sit in the designated priorty seat to make it easier for others that really need the seat (see photo below). The culture of respect creates an unbelievably safe atmosphere that leads to modern day miracles. On countless occassions, I have left my phone, wallet, and Macbook out at a busy Starbucks  and no one ever stole it. I have seen people leave their key in the ignition of their scooter, because they have such a deep trust that no one will steal it. When you cultivate a society that is mindful of others, life is better for everyone (even the dogs are rarely leashed, and are always well-trained). We have a lot to learn in the United States, where we value individualism over just about everything else, almost to a fault.

As I wrap up my time here in the Republic of China, I am often asked what I am going to tell my friends and family about Taiwan when I get back to the states. The first thing that I am going to talk about is the amazing Taiwanese hospitality. In the almost 30 countries that I have been privileged to visit, the people of Taiwan are some of the nicest and most welcoming people that I have ever met in my entire life. On a daily basis in Kaohsiung, people will come up to me and say ‘hello,’ and try to help me out in anyway that they can. Sure, the Taroko Gorge was one of the most beautiful parts of nature that I have ever seen, but the true beauty of Taiwan is its people.

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The Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) is gorgeous, but the true beauty of Taiwan is its people.

Second, albeit controversially, is that I believe now more than ever that Taiwan is unequivocally a sovereign state that deserves the recognition and protection of an independent nation unconditionally. If there is any policy that I agree with the current administration on, it is their support of the Republic of China. Taiwan is a beacon of hope that shares the democratic values of the United States, and we need to ensure that our countries have an enduring friendship that will stand up to geopolitical rivals. Perhaps Director Moy, the de facto United States ambassador to Taiwan, said it best during our end-of-year Fulbright banquet:

In a weird way, my Fulbright experience is like a movie playing before my eyes. On some days, it feels like I have been living in Asia for years. On other days, I feel like it was just yesterday that I was sitting on a plane waiting to take on the world. As they say, maybe “a bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us! So, bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles; the painters, and poets, and plays. And here’s to the fools who dream… crazy as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that break… here’s to the mess we make.”

謝謝 , 台灣![Xièxiè, Táiwān!]

很高興認識你們 , 我學到了很多東西。[Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐmen, wǒ xué dàole hěnduō dōngxī.]

我會想你的![Wǒ huì xiǎng nǐ de!]

台灣將永遠在我心中。[Táiwān jiāng yǒngyuǎn zài wǒ xīnzhōng.]

 

The bǔxíbān (補習班) experience: My night at a Taiwanese Cram School

As previously mentioned, the Taiwanese educational system encompasses a gigantic range of cram schools. However, it is virtually impossible to find stories in the mainstream media about east Asian education today that boldly confronts the existence of this parallel educational system (Turton, 2012). These cram schools (known in Mandarin as 補習班or bǔxíbān, which literally translates to ‘supplementary learning class’) are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, science, Chinese, and English.

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A typical bǔxíbān in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

After hearing about cram schools in dozens of interviews conducted throughout Taiwan, I was visit a bǔxíbān and actually see what one is like for myself. Thanks to some of my colleagues at Kaohsiung Girls High School, I was able to visit one of the most famous cram school teachers, Teacher Lin, at 志光公職補習班 (Zhiguang Public Cram School). When I first walked into the cram school, I was surprised at how elaborate the facilities are. I really enjoyed how this school celebrated academic success and had a “Hall of Fame: of all the university acceptances form previous students. This learning center had several floors and different rooms for different needs: The main classroom (four different rooms for different subjects), a study room with a “teaching assistant” (but is a full-time licensed teacher), a computer room, and a “relax” room where kids can get water or tea. The classroom I visited was about twice size of a typical American classroom and had over 100 seats, but somehow does not feel crowded.

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One of the most interesting aspects of the cram school structure is that all lessons are recorded for kids that are absent or were confused with a particular topic and wanted “extra help.” The school has a library of videos that teach students any topic imaginable and is akin to an old-school version of Khan Academy (with their current teacher). The students can watch the videos of the lesson anytime they want and can rewind or slow down the video at their own discretion at any time.

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During the class, I was interested in how engaged the students were in the lesson. Teacher Lin has created his own resource (books) for each math topic, and each problem has a similar problem with a given answer for more practice. The use of multiple representations is rampant and is very strategic about using different colors to highlight how different parts of the pictorial representation relate to the procedural applications. Another interesting tidbit is that the teacher uses different parts of the board for different parts of the lesson. The far-left part of the board is kept up and used as a defacto anchor chart Teacher encourages different methods to solve the same problem and uses jokes and brain-breaks to divvy up the lesson. Perhaps most importantly, kids can still be kids – eat, drink, get up and take a break or use the restroom, etc.

 

After class ended, I had a chance to have an impromptu focus group with the students in the class, which was an interesting learning moment, too. Class got out at 9:30pm, and even I was tired – but I was not attending school all day! I asked the students what a typical day looked like for them, and they shared that their public schools get out at 5, cram school starts at 6 and gets out at 9:30, with a 20-minute break at 7:50. Students get home at 10, take a shower, relax, and start HW/studying at around 11. Students spend 1-2 hours and then go to bed around midnight. I also asked if any of the students hang out with their friends or play video games, to which they replied: “Yea! On the weekends mostly. And sometimes during school (haha)!”

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I also asked the students their perspective about the Taiwanese education system, and they shared that, “we wish there was more collaboration… I don’t like sitting and listening to a teacher for three hours. I went to school in Denmark for a year, and it was very different.”

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Post-bǔxíbān dinner at Smokey Joes!

While the practice of late-night tutoring remains controversial, I was really impressed with some of the aspects that I saw during my bǔxíbān visit. It should be noted, too, that although many public schools in Taiwan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way in which parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, but often at an extraordinary financial and emotional cost (Williams, 2017). While visiting a cram school was a tremendous experience and I gained a lot of interesting ideas about pedagogy, I am deeply conflicted about pushing our students too hard. I am all for high expectations, but to a point. After all, shouldn’t kids be kids?

 

Works Cited

Turton, M. (2012). The View From Taiwan. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2012/03/friedman-on-taiwan.html

Williams, C. (2017). Teaching English in East Asia: A Teachers Guide to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Learners. Singapore: Springer imprint is published by Springer Nature.

Fulbright Research Presentation

I am offically at the ‘T-minus one month’ mark, and I honestly cannot believe how fast this entire Fulbright experience has gone.

This past week, I had the chance to talk with Marie Royce (Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs) on the importance of soft diplomacy and how the United States needs to support the Fulbright Program now more than ever. I also had the opportunity to present my research at the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange a few weeks ago in Taipei. Below is a copy of what was printed on my poster that was created by the Fulbright Taiwan staff:

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The poster that was made for my final presentation

“Reflecting on hundreds of classroom observations throughout Taiwan, Paulsen will share his thoughts on the best practices of Taiwanese teaching techniques, education policy, and culture, and offer recommendations on how to implement these ideals in urban schools throughout the United States.

Andrew Paulsen is currently the Lead Math Teacher and an Instruction Coach at East Side High School, the largest comprehensive high school in Newark, New Jersey. Originally from Levittown, New York, Andrew received his B.A. from Marist College, his Master’s in educational leadership, management, & policy from Seton Hall University, and his Ed.M. in public school leadership from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He aspires to change the world, one student at a time.”

Here is a video of my final presentation:

After the presentation, I was presented a certificate from Dr. Vocke, the Director of Fulbright Taiwan.

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Receiving my Fulbright certificate

I am officially back in Kaohsiung for my last four weeks in Taiwan. After departing from this incredible country on July 15th, I am looking forward to traveling through mainland China with my parents for a few weeks, and then coming back to the United States at the beginning of August. Here is to one more awesome month in beautiful Taiwan!

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My Fulbright Taiwan Certificate of Achievement. I loved that they printed my Chinese name (柏安尚) on it, too!

Singapore: Thinking Schools, Learning Nation

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the city-state of Singapore, a country with a fascinating history: After being a British colony for over 100 years, the Imperial Japanese Army colonized the area in 1942 during World War II. After the emperor officially surrendered to the allied forces, Singapore was handed back over to British control, and was shortly part of the Federation of Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) before becoming an independent nation in 1965.

In many ways, Singapore is an incredible success story, largely because their leaders put innovative policies in place that transformed their country from a so-called “third-world” country to a “first-world” country in only one generation. Singapore was able to achieve this ambitious vision by effectively and efficiently enacting a series of research-based reforms that helped Singapore develop into a true international city. The founding father and first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, offered citizens of his fledging nation five core principles: democracy, justice, peace, prosperity and equality. In many ways, Singapore has lived up to these ideals, and has become a model urban utopia that celebrates cultural differences.

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Sunsets in Singapore are beautiful, too!

Today, Singapore’s education system is widely held up as one of the best in the world. During my visit to Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit three schools, attend two professional development sessions (a workshop for math teachers and a training on positive education), and speak at the annual reThinking Numeracy conference. Without trying to sound hyperbolic, the schools throughout Singapore were some of the best I have ever seen in my entire life. This video gives a fantastic overview of education in Singapore:

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has developed a school structure that is somewhat different than the United States. Across the country, public school students are broken into primary schools (grades 1-6), secondary schools (grades 7-10), and postsecondary schools (grades 11-12 at a junior college [humanities-based], polytechnic institute [STEM-based], or vocational college). During secondary school, students take a plethora of subjects, including math, science, geography, history, literature, design & technology, food & nutrition, art, music, physical education, English, and a class in their mother tongue language (Chinese, Malay, Tamil, etc.). The Ministry has “been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse” in an attempt to give students a more “broad-based education to ensure their all-round or holistic development, in and out of the classroom.” Classes typically start at around 8am, and the last class ends at around 3pm, depending on the school. Once at the secondary level, students are broken down into three streams: Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical.

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Unlike in the United States, teachers have multiple career pathways, too, including a teaching track (senior/mentor teacher, lead teacher, master teacher, principal master teacher, etc.) a leadership track (subject head, head of department, vice principal, principal, cluster superintendent, zonal superintendent, etc.), and a specialist track (curriculum writers, content specialists, etc.). In the United States, the only career “promotion” is through school leadership, a policy which often takes many of our most transformational teachers out of the classroom. It is also interesting to consider that all principals have a five to seven-year term, at which point they become a principal at another school or move up the school leadership career ladder.

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The school facilities I visited were genuinely immaculate. Quite frankly, I have never seen a school in the entire world that could rival the facilities of the schools I visited in Singapore. All of the schools I visited were modern, open, and conducive to learning. One of the public schools I visited was in the process of converting their physical library to a more digital one to better “prepare for the future.” While their new library will still have books, the new space is designed to foster group work and collaboration. Similar to the process in Taiwan, the students stay in one homeroom all day and move classes for specific special classes, such as art. The homeroom teacher is also responsible for teaching the national character and citizenship education (civics) curriculum.

Visiting different classrooms was also very special. In every math class that I went to, I observed engaged students that were doing all the heavy lifting and working collaboratively to solve the task at hand. When walking around during one lesson, I noticed one group was particularly struggling with the assignment. I went over to their group and asked them what they thought of math class. Without hesitation, one boy said, “math class is ok, I guess, but I struggle. But that is ok, because I am just going to work harder to get better!” It was clear that public school teachers here have worked hard to implement a true growth mindset in their students.

In Singapore, the students and teachers eat lunch together, which is a great way to build community throughout the school. Teachers also eat the same lunch as the students do (which was absolutely delicious, for the record). After our meal, I had the chance to talk with a couple of teachers and students about their experiences in Singaporean schools. For the first time in my life, everyone at this public school had a positive view of the education system. One teacher was particularly inspiring and talked about how we are shifting towards phenomenon-based learning throughout the world. He said: “I think we are shifting that globally… in the United States, the students are talking less and the teachers are talking more. It is so refreshing, because we actually get to hear what the students are thinking. [By letting students work collaboratively], they also have the opportunity to learn from one another.”

In the afternoon, I had the opportunity to talk with the Math Department Head at the public school I visited. When asked about his vision for an ideal math class, he said         that a lesson needs to be motivating, and start off with a strong hook. He continued on, saying that “students must be willing to make mistakes; the more mistakes they make, the better, because that means we have more to learn. Math is not about drill and kill, it is about learning for life. [Math] needs to have meaning. Math is about conversations. We need to speak, and agree or disagree, and to listen and learn from one another.” So inspiring!!

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With Samuel, an incredible school leader in Singapore

There were also a couple of specific math pedagogies that I learned during my trip to Singapore. When going over a test, the students do all of the heavy lifting, and are often given copes of answers by their peers that are not quite correct, yet. The students then go through a protocol (called UCAP) where the students need to find the mistake, and then identify whether the mistake is an understanding (blank, halfway, etc.), conceptual (wrong method/formula), arithmetic/algebra (procedural mistake), or a protocol (Units, significant figures, presentation, etc.) error. The students then need to correct the wrong answers in groups.

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The Singaporean currency also prominently features education

In Singapore, some schools use an interesting stoplight system so that teachers know how students are perceiving the lesson in real time. Each student has a red, yellow, and green card on their desk, resembling a traffic light. All of the students start the lesson with the green card showing and flip their card to yellow or red as the lesson progresses so that every student can discretely communicate with the teacher their level of understanding (Green = understands everything; Yellow = a little confused; Red = completely lost with today’s lesson). There are also protocols (RRRAW) for critiquing the reasoning of others, which includes revising (student A said…), repeating: (saying it in your own words), reasoning (why do they said that?), adding on (students add their own opinions), and wait time (every time you ask a question, you need to wait at least 3-7 seconds). While there are many other things that can be learned from observing schools throughout Singapore, these are just a sampling of the high-impact strategies that educators can implement in their classes tomorrow to increase their teaching toolbox.

I was also graciously invited to attend a professional development session designed for Singaporean teachers. The session was on modeling real life problem situations mathematically. We started the session off by describing the need for research-infused pedagogies and set learning intentions and success criteria for mathematical modeling learning experiences. The facilitator talked about why modeling tasks were so important, as our students are living in a world where disruptive technologies are transforming our global economy. Perhaps most humbling was how open the Singaporean teachers were to new ideas and to bettering their craft. At one point, the facilitator asked how many in the room think they could run a vertical marathon, and proudly proclaimed: “for those that raised your hand, you can.” In Singapore, they truly practice what they preach.

I was also legitimately blown away by the focus on civics and positive education. At every secondary school in Singapore, there is a dedicated career and education counselor that is tasked with helping students prepare for the next step in their learning journey. One Singaporean teacher told me that “all students have the opportunity to be great, but they shouldn’t compare themselves to one another. The most important thing is improving against your previous score. There is always room for improvement!” Inspired by the innate sense of a growth mindset, I attended a positive education training that was very informative. Simply put, the facilitator started the session by declaring that if we are serious about wanting our students to flourish, wemust put wellbeing at the heart of education. She defined flourishing as the combination of doing good and feeling good, and offered the following framework to transform our schools:

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I fundamentally believe in this vision of positive education and need to do more reflecting and thinking about how we can systematically implement these best practices back home in the states (more information about positive education will be shared in a future blog post on democratizing our classrooms). The next day, I attended the reThinking Numeracy Conference, which was headlined by Melissa Daniels and Steve Leinwand. Melissa Daniels is currently the principal of one of the High Tech High schools, a charter network in San Diego, California that has gained national attention lately for their innovative work in putting PBL at the heart of their school model. She started by asking a provocative question: When was the last time you really learned something? After reflecting individually for a few minutes, a few people shared their thoughts, and she noted how no one said anything about sitting in a lecture. She went through the learning environment educators need to setup to create meaningful learning experiences for every child.

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Speaking at the reThinking Learning Conference

Steve Leinwand was also very informative. As a senior education researcher, consultant, and lead writer of NCTM’s landmark publication Principles to Action, I knew I had a unique opportunity to learn from one of the true experts in the field. Steve offered ways to make math accessible to all students, including asking alternate applications, giving the correct answer and asking why it is correct, encouraging student discourse, utilizing more multiple representations, adding relevant context to the material at hand, embedding more literacy skills throughout a lesson, and constantly asking students to ‘convince me.’ Perhaps math teachers should be more like English teachers and adapt what the text bestows by turning exercises into more opportunities for learning. He also suggested that “instead of bombarding students with the whole word problem, the entire graph or figure or table, use the power of PowerPoint to gradually release or reveal the problem, graph, figure, etc. using questions to probe understanding of prior and new content.”

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Steve Leinwand speaking at reThinking Learning

It truly was an incredible week of learning in Singapore. Some teachers do not believe Singapore’s education system has a replicable model, because of how small the country is geographically. I respectfully disagree with this argument and feel that we have a lot to learn from both Singapore and Malaysia (in addition to everything we can learn from Taiwan, too). I encourage all Americans, if they have the opportunity, to visit Singapore (and travel internationally as much as possible). English is widely spoken throughout the country, and it is incredible how the government has been able to fully embrace the innate power to be found in diversity. The Vision of Singapore’s Minstry of Education is ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation,’ and in many ways, their public schools truly are molding the future of their incredible nation. Wouldn’t it be incredible if every country had the same bold vision for public education?