Category Archives: Travel

Vacay-On: The Aspen Ideas Festival

For every completed book I post on Instagram, I add a new novel to my stack. For every workshop I attend, at least a handful of tweets and sixty minutes of happy hour discussion ensue. This is my summer vacay-on. An adios to the grading is a bienvenidos to the reflecting, thinking, and planning for next year. A typical teacher’s summer–whether we like it or not–follows the National Board cycle of plan, act, reflect.

Two weeks ago I found myself learning and reflecting in the mountains suffering from altitude sickness and allergy attacks. My husband, Nate Bowling, was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He slayed (recordings can be found here).

The Aspen Ideas Festival is known as a place where brilliant minds meet, theories clash, and plans are hatched. I had no idea how incredible it would be or how dumb I would feel. I definitely didn’t recognize Katie Couric sitting next to me. Even though I know and love Melissa Block from All Things Considered, I’d never seen a picture. I didn’t recognize David Brooks and Thomas Friedman when they walked past me. I tried not to geek out completely when I met Rabia Chaudry of the Undisclosed Podcast and Serial fame.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

  • The America Women Know
  • Being Muslim and American in 2017
  • Hate on the Rise–And What We Can Do to Stop It
  • Guns And State Rights: A Loaded Weapon?
  • Creative Tensions: The Responsibility of Identity
  • When Color Blindness Renders Me Invisible to You
  • Building American Talent (Making it in the US)
  • Leadership Through Inspiration
  • Deep Dive: Rural America
  • On Being Latino In America

At first glance, my choices might look like a strange exhibition at the art museum. With a closer look, you’ll notice that each session is like an episode of an epic podcast series (think Serial or S-Town) working to form a complete story. Here’s what I imagine each episode to include.

Episode One: Who are we?
We live in a country comprised of different languages, cultures, values, and perspectives. Yet, as a nation, we struggle to find a sense of identity. Are we a Superpower? Are we the creators of the American Dream? Are we Big Brother? Are we the defender of democracy and justice in the world? Do we have a national language? Are we religious? Are we white or black or brown or multiracial?

We are all of those and none of the above. Because our identity is ever changing, ever evolving, we continuously wrestle with our sense of national identity. Voices press from all sides wanting us to be this or that, praising the merits of color blindness and telling us to ignore our differences.

At the Festival, Haris Tarin (Senior Policy Director for Homeland Security) shared a story about his father who emigrated from Afghanistan. His father always said, “I moved to this country because I would not be accepted for who I am [in Afghanistan]. I think my children will be able to find that acceptance [in America].” While this family found that acceptance, today many Americans can’t find a place to fit in and don’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. Our culture affirms certain identities and rejects others.

Our students are bombarded by conflicting messages about their identities and place in our world. They bring whatever they’ve internalized into our classrooms and it’s our duty to address them.

Episode Two: Haters Gonna Hate
Yes, it’s official. Hate is on the rise. Say what you will about the reasons for that. Maybe it’s the election. Maybe it’s that we have more technology at our fingertips and therefore are able to document and report these occurrences. Maybe it’s because we’ve moved away from accepting the “kids will be kids” excuse for bullying and harassment and have consequently implemented Student Life departments to prevent and manage cases. Maybe we are more sensitive because we realize it’s not about being politically correct but about not being a jerk. We may be “better off” than we were in the 50s but we still have white supremacy driving the increasing acts of hate. We–especially those of us who are part of the dominate culture, language, or power structures–must stop ignoring this.

In particular, educators must learn how to shut down acts of hate in our schools by identifying symbols of hate and facilitating “table talk” about these issues. We have to stand up for the kids in our classrooms who are systematically pushed to the edges of society.

Episode Three: The Invisible Costs
Throughout the week, I thought about the young women in our schools who are looking at a future where they continue to be paid less than men and have yet to see themselves as presidents. I reflected on the thousands of Muslim children who are carrying the weight of a conflicted identity because we say that in America you can be both, and; however, these kids aren’t allowed that luxury. I wondered about the young Black men in my classroom who pursue their dreams but constantly worry about being stopped by the police for wearing a hoodie and carrying some Takis. I pondered the attacks on immigrants, the ease by which immigrants are targeted and fear of the “other” is whipped up.

Educators, we have to see our students. Start by dropping the assumptions. Examine the expectations we have for our students. Listen to what they share with us. Accept who they are and support them.

Episode Four: A New Hope
As Jonathan Greenblatt said, “The best antidote to hate is knowledge.”

We have the power to stop hate in this country, but we have to intentionally fight it through knowledge and education. Wherever you are, whatever you are blessed to be doing, you have a responsibility to do something with your platform. That might mean doing what Camille Jones, 2017 State Teacher of the Year does with her blog, Farmtable Teach or what teacher leaders are doing over at Corelaborate.

Of course we can’t do this alone but can as a community. Join a network such as #EduColor or create your own network of like-minded educators. We need to work together and collaborate. Even if we don’t agree 100% on everything we have to find a way to organize around the most important 75%. Our children cannot wait for us to stop bickering over nonsense.

Epilogue:
Okay, so maybe this is an extremely short season of your new favorite podcast, but you get the point. Over and over, speakers challenge the audience to see both the beauty and the pain, to challenge our fears, to share our stories, to get uncomfortable, and to grow.

Professional Learning Interloper

One of the greatest myths about public school teachers is that we have the summer off. Certainly, it’s nice to have a few days where the alarm doesn’t ring at 5am or to forget what day of the week it is, but most teachers, in fact, spend the summer finding themselves again as adults by connecting with family (and working out or going to the dentist), by working a second job to help pay for expenses, and by stretching themselves as learners–which means, finding relevant professional learning opportunities.

These professional learning opportunities create a space in which teacher can deeply reflect on what did/didn’t work last year and make the creative changes needed. Although exhausted by the last day of school, I anticipate attending workshops such as building retreat days, AP institute, GLAD training, or tech conferences that push my thinking. While research shows that the best professional learning is job-embedded and on-going, one-time conferences have a place–they’re a little surge of energy that’s just enough to wake you up. They give us a drone’s-eye view by showing us that we are connected to teachers across this state and around the nation.

However, this summer calendar was oddly clear. So, I decided to interlope. I tagged along with my husband, the WA STOY (see Lessons from the Road) to DC, Colorado, and Illinois. I eavesdropped at the Education Commission of the States during Happy Hour debriefing sessions. At the Aspen Institute Program on Education & Society (special invite only event!), I secretly read articles from the syllabus and chitchatted over dinner about policy with incredible leaders in equity work from across the country. The final conference of the summer was the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) where Nate gave a lunch time keynote speech. To my delight, the NNSTOY conference was open to “any teacher”. Alas, once I arrived, I learned that it really wasn’t any teacher (only a few of us were without titles like STOY or finalist of ___), but I was already there, my registration paid, and Katherine Bassett, the conference organizer, far too gracious to kick me out.

I was eager to release my inner nerd, especially because this year’s theme was “Bridging Theory and Practice.” If you’ve ever hung out with me, you know I’m obsessed with merging these two elements in my life. This theme was further developed by a focus on four strands keynoted by outstanding leaders in our field and facilitated by excellent teachers from across the country.

  1. Constructing Student Centered Classrooms
  2. Leadership Spanning
  3. Building Professional Networks
  4. Expanding on Teacher Leadership
  5. This conference delivered.

I walked out with a better sense of how to engage my students through technology. I was inspired by creative models for teacher leadership such as what Denver Public Schools is doing with their Teacher Leadership & Collaboration model. I heard exactly what Charlotte Danielson intended for the Danielson evaluation (omg! Geeked out that I heard the real Danielson!). I felt empowered to build my teacher leadership through blogging. I was challenged to keep equity at the center of everything I do. Finally, I was reminded by Maddie Fennell, an NBCT from Nebraska who works for the Department of Education, to get involved in policy work because “if you aren’t at the table, you’ll be on the menu.”

Most importantly, I met, networked, and collaborated with absolutely fantastic educators from Washington (shout out to the WA Teacher Advisory Council!) to Jersey.

This last takeaway is why I want to encourage all of you to interlope at an upcoming conference or training that you think will make you a better teacher or give you an opportunity to network with agents of change.

Although, the conference is over, I highly recommend you read the writing of James Ford “What School Segregation Looks Like” or watch Nate Bowling’s invitation to join “The Family Business” Also, go to Twitter and do some post-conference lurking…I mean learning… by using the hashtags #teachersleading and #NNSTOY16

Lessons from the Road

Growing up my sisters and I would play “imagination”, pretending we were orphans lost at sea (this meant swinging from our hammock in the yard), fighting dragons across dangerous moats (jumping from rock to rock) or even playing market (hey, I blame my imagination on my voracious reading habits!). What I could never have imagined was growing up to marry an amazing man who’d later be recognized for his achievements in the classroom, specifically being named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year (WA STOY for short) and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

Many people are confused about these titles or what they entail, but I’ll tell you this much–the selection process is rigorous and the responsibilities overwhelming. You must represent your students, your school, your state, AND your profession, while staying true to your values. You must figure out how to say “no”. You must say “yes” more than you really want to. You must write sub plans at 4:30 in the morning before you catch a flight across the country to speak truth to power.

As both a teaching colleague and wife, I have a unique view of the madness. It’s like watching your favorite indie musician finally get recognized and then accidentally volunteering to be half-time roadie/half-time backup singer for a year–or however long the tour lasts. Although we are seven months into the tour, there is still a long, unknown road ahead. I’ve been to DC three times, Aspen, and am now headed to Chicago (no, my trips aren’t paid for but I intentionally drive a KIA and have no children or pets).

I decided I should share a few of the lessons I’ve learned from this vantage point.

1. Don’t be afraid to speak truth.

  • My STOY doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean–it’s annoying at times, however, it’s one of the qualities I admire most. This has led to both adoration and criticism by those around him, but he continues to hold firm to the values ingrained in him by his faith, family, and community.
  • When I met the STOYs from other states, I was struck by the honesty and passion each person spoke with. They openly acknowledged the issues and challenges in their communities. They proudly shared the successes of their schools or state leaders. They spoke truth.

2. Learn to vet all opportunities against your values.

  • How you spend your time and what you spend your time talking about communicates your values.
  • Since the STOYs are now recognized voices in the profession, it’s easy for education groups to try to solicit them for speaking opportunities. My STOY carefully reads up on each organization or person that sends him an invite, and evaluates whether or not this will move the needle forward for our profession and  our students.
  • Some opportunities are just straight up AH-MAZING. Kick it at VP Biden’s house? Take a photo with Barack? Every STOY I talked to used their thirty seconds of one-on-one time with the President to bring up their students. Values.

3. Find your tribe.

  • Teaching can sometimes feel like an isolating profession. You work hard in your classroom and in your school but it’s easy to put your head down and just grind. But isolation leads to burn out and we must find our tribes–it could be colleagues you are close to, like-minded people in an adjacent school district, or a Twitter friendship.
  • If you have the opportunity to network, do it. Your tribe is bigger than you think–connect with the number of outstanding teachers across this country and you’ll feel rejuvenated.
    Not only have the STOYs been incredibly inspiring but many of their partners are teachers or work in education as well. They carry with them a fire, the spirit of determination and a special love for their communities. I was delighted to swap stories about our communities over dinner. I think about the new “friends” I’ve made as the WA STOY backup singer (it’s even Facebook official!) and I feel lucky to share these experiences and be a part of the work that is happening across this country.

4. Remember why you are doing what you’re doing.

  • It’s not all filet mignon and open-bars. There are hours and hours of emails, speech writing, phone calls, interviews, layovers, and plane rides. As I watch my own STOY and read through Facebook feeds, I will testify that these teacher-leaders are working their butts off. Somehow, despite the chaotic whirlwind of fame, they maintain their focus on their true love–students and teaching.

As my plane gets ready to descend into O’Hare airport, I’ll wrap up by saying I am proud of my WA State Teacher and the other STOYs across this country who are doing the work. And a special SHOUT-OUT to all the backup singers and roadies offering their support!

Translation from Finnish

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The following is a guest-post from Sarah Applegate, an NBCT teacher librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey Washington. She is passionate about quality information literacy instruction, working with teachers to provide a wide range of resources for students, and dark, bitter Finnish licorice.

I have a confession. 
I am a “Finnophile” (“one who
loves all things from Finland”) and a “ChauvaFinn”
(“one who displays excessive pride in Finland”) yet I hold an American passport.
 My friends and colleagues will
tell you that since I returned from a Fulbright study in Finland in 2011, I
have sought out every opportunity to reflect upon and share what I learned and
observed during my research on the Finnish education and library system.  Some might say I sought out TOO many
opportunities- during casual dinners, on long runs, and while watching our kids
at the park,  to share memories,
insights and observations from my time in Finland. While embracing my Finnish obsession,
I have continued to reflect on what I observed while in Finnish schools and
libraries. I have constantly considered how schools in Washington could learn
from Finnish education practice and translate them into Washington state
settings.

On September 21, I was finally able to make connections
between what I had learned and observed in Finland through a Finnish Education
Conference, funded by the US Department of State with support from CSTP and
WEA. We gathered 50 teachers from Washington to hear and think about what makes
Finland’s education system work and how their approaches could be used in
Washington state schools. I brought together four US Finland Fulbright
teachers, as well as two Finnish teachers, to speak on how Finland organizes
their education system, designs and delivers instruction and trains their teachers.
During the morning, participants were able to learn about Finnish education practices
and in the afternoon, teachers a chance to “translate” what they had learned to
their own teaching context and plan for potential implementation of Finnish
practices in their Washington state setting. What we translated has some promising implications for us in our schools – read on to see what we cooked up.

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What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland

by Maren Johnson

Pasi Sahlberg 1I attended an amazing conference in Seattle this week, Excellence in Education: Washington State and Finland. We learned about some great things going on in Finland, we learned about some great things going on in Washington, and I experienced some culture shock.  Was it the differences between Finland and the United States that struck me?  Well yes, there was that, and that is what got me started thinking about culture.  However, instead of international differences, I was thinking about some of the cultural as well as philosophical differences between education groups in our own Washington state: differences between people who are in the classroom and those making policy decisions guiding classroom work; differences between policy makers and those doing education research. How to overcome those differences and build on them?  Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s Education Ministry, said, “So much of what we do in Finland, we have learned from American researchers and educators.”  He then very provocatively said the difference is that in Finland, they actually implement that research!  Here in Washington, we need to get those research<—>policy<—> implementation links tightened up, and yes, those are double-headed arrows: information needs to flow each way!

There are some vast historical and social differences between Finland and Washington—an education system cannot just be transplanted.  However, Finland has not always been an education high performer—it languished in the mid twentieth century—but over the past several decades, as Pasi Sahlberg said, “Finland has improved a lot, while the rest of the world has improved a little bit.”  This improvement can be traced to policy decisions.  What are a few of the Finnish Lessons we might learn?

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Teacher Talk

By Maren Johnson

Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher.  My parents were both teachers, my aunt and uncle were teachers, my grandma was a teacher, my great aunt was a teacher.  Not me, I wanted none of it.

After graduating from college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.  I joined the Peace Corps.   I applied to be an agricultural volunteer to help small farmers, but instead, I was assigned to be a math teacher for two years in Guinea, West Africa.  I taught in a small town in the rain forest on the border with Liberia.  Before the Peace Corps, there was no math teacher at my school.

Under tree

Teachers under the tree at my school in Guinea, West Africa

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