Exercise and the Brain

September 22, 2010 on 11:29 am | In curriculum, education, health | No Comments

Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter? The New York Times reports that two separate recent studies from the University of Illinois indicate that aerobic exercise has demonstrable positive effects on brain development in children.  At a time when many school Physical Education programs are being slashed because of budget issues or time constraints, more and more research suggests that physical activity is critical not only for the health and well being of students, but also for their cognitive development. These studies reinforce the message of John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman’s groundbreaking Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. As curriculum developers and decision makers, we need to remember that Athletics and PE are not just add-ons.

Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?

The Need for Downtime

September 7, 2010 on 9:21 am | In Uncategorized, education, technology | No Comments

A recent New York Times article, “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime,” has gotten me thinking a lot about the effects of constant, immediate access to media and information. As more and more people fill downtime by pulling out their smart phones to make a call, send a text, or check their e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook accounts,  this habit of filling the gaps between activities is having an unexpected negative effect on our brains: “when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”

As an educator at a school with a one-to-one laptop program, I see this as adding another layer to the discussion about the impact of ubiquitous digital access on teaching and learning. Multitasking, distraction, socialization, cognitive development – all issues to keep in mind as we continue to look for effective, even transformational, ways to harness the technologies of the 21st Century while not losing sight of the fact that balance is crucial.

Thoughts about Delegation

May 21, 2010 on 12:53 pm | In Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I have come to realize that I am not a good delegator, or at least that delegating doesn’t come naturally to me. As I reflect on this, I don’t think it’s so much that I don’t trust others to do the job or think that I can do it better. It’s really more that I feel guilty to give someone else work that I could very well be doing myself.

Hmmm, I guess this is a leadership challenge that I’ll need to grapple with if I want to be a successful leader.


March 8, 2010 on 4:42 pm | In bruce dennis, education, nais | 1 Comment

I met my cohort in the Fellowship for Aspiring Heads program at NAIS 2010 in San Francisco. What a varied and interesting group of people! I’m looking forward to seeing them all again in Atlanta in July.

During the first meeting, we were asked to take a moment to jot down five milestones that brought us from high school graduation to our seats that day in the Moscone Convention Center. When I stopped to think about my journey in those terms, unlike the others in my group, my life through education was marked not by moments or events but by people.  That was a powerful realization to make, so I thought I’d reflect on it here.

John Lawler – University of Michigan Professor of Linguistics, my teacher in the Freshman Seminar “Metaphors We Live By,” a brilliant thinker and gifted teacher, my adviser as a Linguistics major, an insightful mentor. It was John who deepened my interest in language and languages, introduced me to the world of computers, strong-armed me into taking Pascal programming, arranged an internship for me at CompuView. In short, John shaped the way I would grow to look at technology through the lens of language.

Charo Gayarre – Charo was the mother of the Spanish family that “adopted” me when I moved to Spain after college. Without Charo, my year in Spain would have been enjoyable but not transformative as it was. From her I lived and learned Spanish language and culture. She got me my first job in a school, at the American School of Madrid, where I worked as an aid, tutor, and coach. A person of profound insight, she knew that I should be a teacher before I did, and she pointed me to Trenton State College’s summer program in Mallorca, where I began my studies in ESL and second language acquisition. Where I met….

Virginia Rojas – Former Trenton State College Professor of ESL and head of their international programs. It was Gini who, on a beach in Mallorca, convinced me that I should return to the US to work as her graduate assistant, do a Master’s degree rather than the certification I was working toward, and then come back to Spain to teach. In short, she mapped out the next two years of my life. I agreed. When I worked as her grad assistant, Gini gave me ample opportunities to learn and lead. It was because of Gini that I was able to do my student teaching in Khartoum, Sudan, and it was on her recommendation that I met….

Lister Hannah – Lister called me when I was living in New Jersey on his way back from a conference in California to Munich, Germany, where he was Head of the Munich International School. He told me that he’d gotten my resume from Gini Rojas and asked if I would meet him at JFK airport for an interview on his layover in New York. I did, and he offered me a job over hot dogs and beer in an airport food court. I had been planning to go back to Spain, had not considered working in Germany, but I was impressed by Lister and flattered that he would waive the school’s experience requirement to offer me the job. I accepted a week later. I couldn’t have asked for a better school or a better headmaster for my first full time teaching experience. Lister encouraged and supported me to expand my teaching from ESL to IGCSE and IB English, so I grew immensely as a teacher in those four years. He was also instrumental in getting me a job in New York City when I left Munich.

Bruce Dennis – Bruce is my current Head of School, and I feel lucky to work with him. He is a straight-shooter who is thoughtful and fair, and he prides himself on mentoring others to rise to leadership positions. It was he who first suggested that I apply for the Aspiring Heads Fellowship. I won’t say too much about him here because if he reads this, he’ll accuse me of pandering!

As I said when I introduced myself to the Cohort in San Francisco, I have always ascribed to the belief that “Serendipity demands a certain abandon to circumstance,” but it also clearly requires a considerable number of helping hands along the way.

A Journey Begins

February 21, 2010 on 5:25 pm | In dane peters, education, nais, nysais | 1 Comment

I was recently accepted into the 2010-2011 cohort of the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads. I’m very excited to have this opportunity and am thrilled that Dane Peters, Head of the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, has agreed to act as my mentor in the program. I have known Dane for a number of years through the NYSAIS Tri-Committee (Professional Development, Diversity, and Technology) meetings and have always enjoyed our brief conversations, so I am looking forward to being able to work closely with him during this process. Dane is an avid blogger about education, which is one reason I decided to dust off this blog and use it to document my journey through the Aspiring Heads program.

Dane and I met for the first time last Friday over lunch to discuss the Fellowship. I feel fortunate that Dane is so supportive of the Aspiring Heads program; I am the sixth (or was it seventh?) mentee that Dane has guided through the process. His enthusiasm has already put me at ease since when I first approached him, I was afraid that my request might be a burden given the many demands he has on his time. Instead, he seems as genuinely excited about working together as I am. What more could I ask for?

Our first conversation gave me much food for thought about the journey on which I’m embarking, and Dane has already focused my attention on aspects of a head’s job that I hadn’t really considered. For example, he told me about an article he’s working on that examines the dynamics of the crucial relationship between heads of school and boards of trustees. He also gave me an article about the 2009 NAIS Leadership Research Study and recommended two books to add to my reading list: Saying Grace, a novel by Beth Gutcheon, and Daniel Pink’s Drive, a book about motivation (that Pat Bassett also mentioned in his keynote at the NYSAIS conference  this year, and a topic Pink addressed at TED). I was struck how Pink’s notion of the importance of autonomy as motivation parallels an example of the power of positive reinforcement versus the “hot poker” approach to management that I’ve carried with me since James McConnell’s psychology class eons ago.

I head to San Francisco on Tuesday for the NAIS Conference and have my first Fellowship meeting Wednesday morning. Off we go!

Essential Questions

March 6, 2008 on 11:15 am | In education, technology | 2 Comments

I’ve been rereading Heidi Hayes Jacob’s thoughts on the importance of essential questions in curriculum development. We’re currently in the throes of curriculum mapping at my school, so I was originally approaching the ideas from the perspective of my role as Computer Science department head.

As I read, however, I’ve realized that the points she makes are just as relevant if I don my other cap of technology director.

I’ve long had concerns about how schools have tended to approach technology. There has often seemed to be a buy-first, ask-questions-later mentality driving the process. I worry when schools invest in hardware, software, and infrastructure without a clear sense of how it’s going to be used or how it’s going to be supported. I’m not saying that everything needs to be planned ahead of time – the availability of the tools can certainly enable and inspire creative uses – but without thoughtful goals related to learning and teaching, educational technology so often seems to stop at word processing and e-mail.

With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful and interesting exercise to think about some essential questions related technology use in education. In no particular order:

  • At what age should student computer use begin in school? At what age is one-to-one appropriate?
  • Which computing platform(s) and why?
  • Is technology additive, instrumental, or transformational?
  • Is it important for schools to be “cutting edge”?
  • What skills should all students be learning? What role does technology play?
  • What would be the benefits of a computer programming requirement for all students? At what age should it begin?
  • To draw from a recent post by Sylvia Martinez, how can technology enable students to Create?
  • How do electronic communication and collaboration impact teaching and learning?
  • To filter or not to filter?
  • How do we tap the online tools students already use to create learning opportunities?
  • Social networks as learning networks: How do we make it happen?

Well, that’s a start. I hope others come up with more.

Tech Evaluation

February 12, 2008 on 2:10 pm | In Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When my Head of School and Board asked me last year to do an evaluation of academic technology use at the school, I asked that we bring in an outside group to assess us because I’m just too close to it all to be objective. I was afraid I would only find what I was looking for, and I really see this as an opportunity to get useful feedback about our technology program.

Obviously, I’m hoping for a generally positive assessment of what we’re doing here, but I’m also looking forward to hearing what the we need to work on as a department and a school.

Last week the consultants from Independent Focus visited us to conduct focus groups and one-to-one interviews of students, faculty, administrators, and parents. It was an intense four days. I was impressed by the consultants’ thoughtful approach and thorough preparation.

While I did not have much time to debrief with them, it seems the primary concerns that came up are those I expected, those we regularly wrestle with: age appropriateness of the Middle School one-to-one laptop program, reliability of the Macintosh computers, appropriate/safe use, network speed, and user data backup. I’m curious to hear what else comes up.

To complete the first phase of the evaluation, the evaluators will conduct phone interviews with recent graduates to get their perspective as well. I’m hoping that this perspective will offer a rich source of new information.

The next phase will involve online surveys of the same constituent groups, but with a larger sampling and wider range of questions than the face-to-face meetings could include.

Once that is completed, the consultants will report back to the school sometime in the spring.

Martial Arts: The Model Classroom?

February 11, 2008 on 2:55 pm | In education, martial arts | 5 Comments

For ten years I have run Taekwondo programs for students and faculty at the schools where I have worked. While I have long believed that martial arts training can be incredibly valuable for children and adults alike, some of my conversations at and since Educon have gotten me thinking about how the dojang (training hall) can be a model for the academic classroom.

“Model?” I hear you exclaim incredulously, “Isn’t martial arts training about as far from progressive education as possible, with its culture of blind obedience and drill-till-you-drop mentality?”

Actually, I don’t think it is.

First of all, just as in the academic realm, there are obviously good martial arts schools and not-so-good martial arts schools. When taught well, Taekwondo, which roughly translates from Korean as “the Way of Hand and Foot,” is about more than learning how to kick and punch. As the name suggests, training should be a journey to find the Way, a personal path to self-improvement and deeper meaning. Ultimately, martial arts training is about facing personal challenges, striving to overcome them with persistence and discipline, and learning from the lessons of experience.

Isn’t this really the goal of any good education?

As far as the question of blind obedience, this is an issue I address regularly with new students. I usually begin by talking about the custom of bowing, a particularly difficult concept for fiercely independent Westerners. The exchange generally looks something like this:

“Why do we all have to bow to you?”

“You don’t.”

“What do you mean? We start and end every class by bowing to you.”

“No, we start and end every class by bowing to each other.”

I go on to talk about the respect, responsibility, and trust that the bowing represents and communicates. Student bows to teacher in respect and to show that she is putting her trust in her teacher’s hands; teacher bows to student in respect and to accept responsibility for the trust that has been given him.

Isn’t that the relationship forged in any good classroom, albeit normally less explicitly?

Bowing inevitably leads to questions about why students address me as Sabumnim or the English equivalent, “Master,” and why all blackbelts are addressed as Sir or Madam. While these concerns give me the opportunity to talk about some of the history, traditions, and rituals of Taekwondo, more importantly they allow us to discuss the importance of checking the ego at the door and entering the dojang with an open mind – important prerequisites for any kind of learning.

We remove our shoes as a symbolic way to leave the concerns of the day-to-day world outside the dojang. We bow as we enter the training hall to show respect to the culture and traditions of Taekwondo. We address instructors and senior students with ritualized titles that express respect and acknowledge the rank of those more experienced than we. There is a very clear hierarchy in Taekwondo, but it is one based on the straight-forward criterion of seniority and represented by the color of the belt tied around your waist. It’s a culture that cultivates humility while still valuing and acknowledging individual achievement.

As for the question of drill, traditional martial arts are certainly filled with repetitive practice, but I would argue that the nature of this type of training differs markedly from the mindless rote learning that can be found in too many academic classrooms. Memorizing facts and figures doesn’t build skills, except maybe the skill to memorize. What’s to be learned by doing the same math problem – or even the same type of math problem – again and again? Doing the same blocks, strikes, and kicks over and over, however, is an essential part of Taekwondo training. So, how does it differ?

The performing of the physical technique is only the first level of learning. First a student learns the movement. As she continues to practice the technique, she comes to understand the body mechanics that allow her to generate maximum speed and power. After many hours of doing the same technique, the student no longer needs to think consciously about the movement; it becomes programmed into her body. The mind is freed to consider the appropriate tactics and strategies that make use of the technique. After many years of training, that same technique can become a means to release the mind entirely, a moving meditation where nothing exists except for the moment when mind, body, and spirit converge at a single point in time and space.

Okay, whoa, isn’t this whole mind/body/spirit thing getting just a little too esoteric?

Maybe. But I recently read the mission statement of a school whose stated goal is to educate the “head, hand, and heart.” What’s the difference?

Other aspects of Taekwondo training make it a compelling model for education. Key concepts of good teaching and learning are embodied in the martial arts: mastery learning, personalized instruction, peer coaching, regular feedback and assessment, and the application of skills in realistic settings.

There’s no class curve in the dojang. You work on a technique until you can do it to the instructor’s satisfaction, then you are tested on it (notice that you’re not tested on it until you’ve proven in class that you can do it), and then you continue to work on it even as you go on to learn new techniques. Throughout this process, you get regular, specific, personalized feedback and instruction, both from the instructor and from more experienced fellow students. As you progress, you also become responsible for helping less experienced students with their learning. On top of all this, you regularly have the opportunity to apply what you have learned in various realistic contexts, such as controlled sparring. Squaring off against a more experienced partner is a powerful opportunity for self-assessment.

As the teacher, my ultimate goal is for all of my students to be better than I am. To borrow an image from the 1970s television series Kung Fu, my hope is that they grow to surpass me and “snatch the pebble from my hand.” But I make it very clear from the start that I will not make it easy for them. My responsibility is to push them to do the best they can, to help them find something inside themselves that they didn’t know was there. I train along side my students because there’s no better way I know to teach focus, discipline, hard work, integrity, passion, self-control, and indomitable spirit than to model those behaviors day in and day out.

I think it’s valuable for students to see teachers struggle to solve a problem or push their own personal limits or try things they know they can’t do. Some martial arts teachers – and dare I say classroom teachers – try to cultivate a sense of awe or mystique about themselves. I’d much rather that my students see me as human, as a person who can’t do anything they’re not capable of doing if they’re willing to train long enough and hard enough to achieve it.

Once while we paused during a challenging workout, a student clearly had something on her mind. When I asked her what was wrong, she looked down and mumbled, “Nothing, sir.” When I pressed her, she finally blurted out, “The problem is, sir, we can’t even complain when you work us this hard because you do everything with us.”

They say misery loves company, but I’d say learning loves company even more.

Photo Storage

January 31, 2008 on 8:25 am | In education, technology, web 2.0 | 7 Comments

We’re currently using personalized wikispaces and edublogs at my school. While we’re getting more and more folks interested and on board, the handling of media on the sites is raising some challenges. For example, some uses are uploading photos (often huge, unoptimized photos) directly to their wikis and blogs while others prefer to link to images in their personal flickr accounts, but the free accounts sometimes limit what they can do.

So, it occurred to me that it might be useful to pay for a single pro flickr account (or one per division, or…?) with a single login to be shared by all faculty. I ran this by the tech department to look for holes in the logic, but I figured I’d tap the Edusphere to see if anyone had any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, cautions, or alternatives to offer.

Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

- It’s inexpensive.
- Flickr is already a familiar tool.
- Unlimited storage, bandwidth, etc.
- It’s easy to use.
- This would be a good way to consolidate and archive school-related images.
- It offers simple image editing capabilities.

- Teachers would share a single login.
- Could students have access as well?
- Does it raise privacy/copyright issues?
- Do the flickr terms of service allow this type of shared use?
- With many users, would it become a chaotic mess?

What are we missing? Any and all suggestions are welcome.

And all of this of course leads to the question of the best way to handle audio and video, so please feel free to offer ideas for that as well.



January 30, 2008 on 8:28 am | In education | No Comments

Three times in the last week I’ve heard people argue that teaching doesn’t change because teachers are afraid – or have too much ego – to give up control in their classrooms. While those teachers no doubt exist in the wild, I’m reminded of a quotation I stumbled across some years ago (but I’m afraid I don’t remember who said it): “Never attribute to others motives more nefarious than your own.”

I suspect that the real reason  so many classrooms tend to be teacher-centered is that a lot of teachers don’t know how to turn over the reins to students and still get through the material they feel obliged to cover.

Yes, I understand that therein lies the problem, but the reality is that the curriculum and expectations are often/usually not the teacher’s own. And I believe a futher reality is that most schools don’t know how to create truly student-centered, constructivist, project-based, creative learning environments that are rigourous, effective, and sustainable and don’t fall victim to the problems that doomed so many past attempts at progressive school reform.

As Chris Lehmann pointed out at EduCon, this stuff isn’t easy.

If it were, everyone would be doing it.

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