School Cleaning Bees – Improving School Environments

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Recently I organised a school ‘cleaning bee’ with a local primary school and students from the Australian National University. We had a group of about 14 students from ANU’s Griffin Hall head out to St Jude’s Primary in Canberra to join school parents for a few hours of gardening, painting and cleaning windows.

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I’ve been back to this school a few times for a cleaning bee over the past few years with Raising Hope Education Foundation and have enjoyed seeing the growth of the school, particularly the gardens.

It is incredible how dull and lifeless some schools are, full of concrete and maybe one or two trees. With a vision for a better school environment, a long term gardening plan and some hard work that can change!

This school has used a range of different trees, shrubs and flowering bushes around the school to improve the landscape over the past five years. While they didn’t do everything at once, each year parents and the community gather together to plant a few more trees, trim the bushes and help manage the gardens.

From my understanding, it was one parent who was passionate about nature and plants that provided the leadership to make this happen. He had a vision for a better school environment not only for his kids but for all the children who would come through the school for years to come.

The key thing is to have a plan for what the gardens will look like as they grow each year and how to strategically add trees, plans and shrubs.

Some other schools I know of get students and their parents to come in during on a particular weekend with a plant or tree to donate. Other schools pre-arrange the purchasing of plants or trees as a donation to the school.

It is wonderful to see parents and students with teachers caring about their school and becoming a stronger community. Partnering with the Lions or Rotary Club can also help to bring organisations into the school community.

I hope that more schools take St Jude’s example and create a plan for improving their school environment. Trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers can really improve the environment of a school and make it a happier place for both students and staff.

Educating in a Temporary Environment: The Town School for Boys

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When hearing about the devastating impact natural disasters have on communities, I often wonder what schools do during a crisis. Seeing an entire school destroyed would be so heartbreaking for a community. Stories of students experiencing life after Hurricane Sandy and reading what happened in the week after, give a small insight to what happens. 

While in California I fortunately didn’t witness any natural disasters. I did however visit a school that had to temporarily relocate due to building works. It was fascinating to see what a school could do when they had the time to spend planning the creation of a temporary learning environment.

The Town School for Boys in San Francisco was the only private school I visited during my time in the U.S. I had the rare opportunity to visit their temporary location at an old ‘Exploratorium’ space (like a museum) at the San Francisco ‘Palace of Fine Arts’. This is while they are undertaking a major infrastructure project at their usual campus.

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The photo above is an arial shot looking over the ‘Palace of Fine Arts’ and the old Exploratorium space taken from this article from Curbed San Francisco about the temporary location. 

While the Palace exterior and gardens reminded me of a scene from the Lake Country of Naboo in Starwars Episode I and II, the Exploratorium was a huge museum space. Imagine having to teach in a giant abandoned museum?! That’s what the Town School was faced with. 

An incredible challenge and opportunity, I was able to see the result of many hours of hard work by the school community. A temporary space was set up for over 200 students in their junior grades (K-3). They need space for all their usual classes so an oval was set up with astroturf, a library with bookshelves on wheels, classrooms established with temporary walls, music class was put in a small theatre and the art class was in an old museum display room. 

There were many challenges to make this space both appropriate for lessons and comfortable for staff and students. The key problem I noticed was the noise, having 20 children practicing sport on the other side of the museum, with 20 others walking to and from class at any given time meant that the noise would carry across the space easily. 

Special walls were created for the classrooms with thick cardboard to help stop the sound entering, but I thought it would still be tough to teach with the noise levels I heard. 

They also needed a place for the school kitchen. They ended up converting the old exploratorium cafe for the school to use and creating a ‘restaurant’ in the space between class rooms and the astroturf oval. 

Chatting with a wonderful teacher who arranged the visit, it was easy to see the passion that made this space come alive. While it could easily have felt quite bland and like a giant old gym, colour was everywhere along with student art and posters. 

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The above photo is of me with a Kindergarten student and Maurine in one of their temporary classrooms. 

A huge thank you to my dear friend Rawan and Maurine for arranging the Town School tour. Another great experience in the U.S. while on the IVLP. 

Where Did You Come From?: Eskwela Natin Filipino School

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When I was younger I knew that my Mum’s parents were a little different. I called them Oma and Opa and understood they were from another place.

As I grew up I learned a little more about this ‘Holland’ that they came from and began to understand what all the wooden shoes were about, why there were ceramic windmills on their wall and where this strange language they spoke came from. I began to enjoy eating speculass biscuits from my Oma’s special tin, playing soccer or ‘football’ with my Opa and enjoying Dutch board games with my brother. However, I never really knew much about The Netherlands.

During my time in Sacramento, California, I was blessed to have met Dolores and Perry Diaz. They moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, have a few kids who live in America and are members of their local Philippines Lions Club. The Diaz family love their new country and are passionate about helping their community, but they also love where their home country and the culture they grew up with.

The passion Dolores and Perry have for their culture led them and a group of Filipino friends to set up a cultural school to help local children understand their heritage and the culture of their parents of grandparents soon. Inspired by the Chinese and Japanese cultural schools locally in Sacramento, they set up a Board and named the school ‘Eskwela Natin: Our Filipino School’.

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Founded in 2013, all local children are encouraged to participate but it is particularly relevant for those U.S. kids in Sacramento with Filipino heritage. In a ten week program, Eskwela Natin introduces and shares Filipino traditions, language, arts, cuisine, history and geography, to students through community classes taught by local Filipinos teachers.

The cultural school has also helped to build the ties of local Filipinos in the area, relying on the volunteer efforts of first generation Filipino-Americans including local parents, grandparents and other members of Filipino organisations. Eskwela Natin helps these volunteers to pass on their first-hand knowledge, students will leave each class with ways to easily adapt etiquette, language or general information about the Filipino heritage into their everyday living.

Last year Eskwela Natin had around 50 students and is hoping to improve on their numbers this year.

I absolutely love this initiative. I wish there had been a Dutch initiative like this as I grew up to help me value my own heritage. I was not lucky enough to learn Dutch and while it may not be an economically valuable language, I believe it is important for everyone to have a connection to their family’s past.

Families can only do so much to impart their history and culture to children. Organising in small community groups like this allows the teachers in a cultural community to use their skills to help provide lessons. Learning as a group can also help give children a shared identity and respect their past while helping them in the future.

It would be great if there were more cultural initiatives in our schools in Australia. Many do a great job and there are similar cultural school initiatives however talking with Dolores and Perry gave me a number of ideas.

It would be great to have elderly residents from many different backgrounds run multicultural days in our schools and perhaps even have one day where you could sign up to go to a school with various classes and activities based around a particular country or region. This would be easy to achieve in Canberra.

I feel like my Irish heritage is well covered so I’m looking forward to chatting with some Dutch friends and my Cousins to see what they think.

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Initiatives like Eskwela Natin keep culture, history and understanding alive. I thank them and their other Filipino friends for meeting with me and providing dinner to my friends and I from the International Visitor Leadership Program. Make sure you give them a like on Facebook! Thanks to the U.S. Embassy Canberra and the State Department for their support to meet with this great organisation.

Technology in Schools: West Florida High School Visit

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What if schools improved their focus on helping students to prepare for a career that suits their passion while in their final years of schooling? That’s exactly what many schools in the U.S. are doing right now.

With an increased need for technological skills for employment, some schools have trailed and implemented programs that incorporate academic and technical skills into students education. West Florida High School of Advanced Technology is one of these and established by Escambia County Schools District to help prepare local youth for the workforce or further study in their chosen field. I was lucky enough to visit two weeks ago with the International Visitor Leadership Program.

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Students apply in 8th Grade and of approximately 1000 applicants in the region, 400 are selected based on attendance, performance and behaviour in their junior high schools. The school only accepts intake in 9th Grade meaning no extra students may come, even if some leave.

When they arrive, students submit preferences based on their interest to be in one of 12 themed Academies. Each Academy has a specific focus, from communications to health or power management. This allows students to begin to experience what it is like to apply your learning in the real world and creates more meaning for their education. The Academies partner with local businesses and organisations, providing tailored work experience for students and some even have special classrooms built as a trial work site.

Academies still provide the standard education curriculum of other schools but students are grouped in Academies with the view of focusing their education around a theme. Final year students I spoke to were very happy about this approach and could tell me about the benefits it was giving them in applying for colleges and jobs for 2015.

The school was made possible by a start up grant from the local Department of Education but is a Public School and runs on the same funding as other schools in the region. Businesses have provided a great deal of financial and in-kind support to help make the practical side of the education possible.

Pros: Students said they were more motivated to study than their friends due to the fact they were already preparing for what they wanted to do after school. Providing a taste of a range of occupations in a themed area allows students to have a broader view of their career path. For example, students in health based Academies will see what it is like to be a paramedic, nurse, dentist, doctor, pharmacist and other careers. Local businesses are also able to focus their attention on a specific area of the school, knowing it will be valuable.

Cons: I think this is a great opportunity and students from other schools who miss out on the selection could benefit. The school didn’t have a strong social media presence and for an ‘Advanced Technology’ school they didn’t have coding or other more modern technological subjects. It was unclear how equitable the selection process was however it was clear that once a student met the entry requirements they were batched and put in a lottery selection system run separately by the Education Department.

Room for Improvement: I asked the Principal if they had a project based learning strategy, linking students english and maths subject content to a project related to their Academy. He said teachers sometimes work together on content but there was no strategy or project based learning approach, I think this would be great to see.

Highlight: The highlight for me was the Multimedia Academy environment. We had the opportunity to tour their media classroom where students were developing their own video. The classroom was fitted with a range of video cameras and a ‘green room’. This enabled the students to film weekly ‘school news’ including interviews with the Principal and senior staff members.

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I was quite impressed by the different local collaborations set up by the school leadership team. The range of businesses they have supporting the school with internships, finances, practical skill development in classes and guest speakers was amazing. This has really helped to give students a helping hand when applying for college scholarships.

Overall, West Florida High School demonstrates to me that with a little additional funding, schools can be transformed from ordinary ‘high schools’ into environments where students can be provided with incentives to learn with a practical skill based approach. While many students have gone on to become doctors and engineers, others are given the confidence to enter the workforce straight after school.

Thans to the Principal, staff and students for having the IVLP group along. Special thanks to Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council for organising the trip.

Why I Love Project-Based Learning

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Did you ever wonder ‘why am I learning this?’ back in high school?

It was something I always struggled with, particularly in later year maths and science but in many other classes too. ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ‘Is this ever really going to help me?’ ‘What’s the point?’

I guess I was one of ‘those students’ who wanted to know why we were learning something and needed a reason to study. That is why I love project-based learning (PBL).

For those who don’t know, Edutopia has a great explanation of what PBL is.

Essentially it connects traditional classroom content with a class project, linking individual lessons to activities connected to the project and allowing students to see relevance in what they are learning.

Linking subject content and teaching to a larger ‘real-world’ project that the whole class is working on both as a group and individually can alter the classroom environment from a boring lecture to an engaging adventure or mission. It allows students to attend regular classes but constantly apply what they are learning to a problem that they might end up facing in real life.

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During my U.S. school visits I was impressed with the way one school allowed students to negotiate their own project with their teacher as a class. The school would then work to make that project possible.

Another example is where a school would ensure that students had themed projects from the moment they began at the school. Each school term from preschool to grade 8 would present a new challenge and students would complete a task that was practical and was a real world issue.

At both schools students said to me that they loved how projects became ‘a challenge we have to work on together.’ ‘We get to participate in a problem that we might have to face later on in life and then do things while learning, that’s what makes this school cool.’

Projects can differ from school to school and class to class but so far I believe there are a few key elements to getting it right.

Firstly, students need to be involved in negotiating project development. While this may be challenging, if students are allowed to have input in the project design (at least for some) then they feel a greater ownership.

Secondly, project based learning needs to be holistic in the school. Where possible, all classes should be linked to the project and the school should imbed this style of learning throughout all of the grades/ year groups.

Thirdly, it needs to be a problem that students know is representative of a real world situation. This ensures students will know the value of what they are learning, showing how skills developed in a class can be applied to a problem.

Fourthly, projects should be celebrated. This can be done with a showcase or a display at the end of the class term, semester or year!

If you are interested in outside of the classroom project based learning, check out the incredible work of Citizen Schools. I’m hoping to see them in action in L.A. before leaving the states. Citizen Schools expands the school day by connecting a team of professional adults to a school and providing a term long program where students complete a project based on that adults passion or work experience.

I always found that classroom environments where students feel they are being forced to learn something that is irrelevant to their life can breed disengagement. PBL can help to engage students in a task and create meaning for their education.

Thanks again to the schools and teachers who have spoken to me about this topic and the U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program.

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I think all schools should be implementing a holistic project-based learning strategy from preschool to year 12, would be great if universities got in on the action too but I’m not holding my breath…

Gifted and Talented Schools: Brooklyn School of Inquiry Visit

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What really makes a child ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’? Can a school create a student to be this way or are they half way there before they are 3?

Over the past few weeks I have visited Washington D.C. and New York with a group of 23 ‘emerging leaders’ in new media from around the world. Many of these international visitors would have been described as a ‘gifted and talented’ child but others would not have been (I fall into the latter category!)

This week the group had an opportunity to visit the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a ‘Gifted and Talented’ Public School in New York City for G&T students selected by the Department of Education.

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I have always found the concept of selective or ‘gifted and talented’ schools both fascinating and confronting. I like to believe that a well-rounded education requires a mix of students with different abilities, but also hope that schools provide incredibly intellectual and ‘gifted’ student the educational experience they desire.

Brooklyn School of Inquiry made me question my fluid beliefs on selective schools. After meeting with the Principal Donna, sitting in a session with a group of students and their teacher and talking with the group I have four general take-aways:

Firstly, bringing gifted students together improves conversations, particularly when these students grasp content many of their peers in other schools would not. The students all engaged with intellectual concepts beyond my expectations and provided critical analysis on them.

Students were looking at the way stories in the media were designed to evoke emotions and one 5th grade student was focused on the end point of the discussion. ‘I want to know how the journalist can design a story to evoke emotions so we know if a story is tricking or pushing us to feel a certain way,’ he said.

Secondly, the students communication was powerful, challenging yet respectful throughout. I had never seen such communication amongst students let alone adults!

Instead of raising their hand or being afraid to disagree, students used their own sign language to signify feelings and desires to respond or follow on from other discussions and were encouraged to politely debate each other, choosing who could respond to their statement.

A teacher would pose a challenge and then students would respond. Instead of waving their hands in the air distracting each other, students simply made a positive ‘thumbs up’ sign to indicate they wanted to respond. Then, once selected, the students would all listen and respond, patting their head if they agreed and shaking their hands to disagree or indicate they were unsure how they felt.

Each student would then pass on the turn to speak to another student of their choice, who would fearlessly agree or disagree with the other students. It was inspiring to see these students communicating in a respectful, professional and advanced way, providing constructive criticism and building on ideas better than most of the Australian Parliamentarians or U.S. Congressional Representatives.

Thirdly, imbedding ‘new media literacy‘ into all of their education programs helps prepare students for modern challenges. The aim of this was to ensure all of their students were well prepared to create or apply for the ‘unknown jobs of the 21st century’ that will require a high level of new media literacy.

We were lucky enough to spend some time with a media education consultant working with their schools to imbed video. I suggest you check out their website if you are interested in this topic.

As the Principal Donna said, ‘we aim to prepare our students to make a difference and communicate in a global way’.

Fourthly, project based learning is the way to go! The school focuses on themes in their classes that incorporate hands-on projects that foster questioning and the development of critical thinking skills. This project based learning is critical to improving educational experiences of children and it is inspiring to see schools in the U.S. taking it up.

Talking with our travelling group, I know the debate will always continue on what makes a student ‘gifted and talented’. How do you really tell which student will thrive in that environment? What if two of us had been born in Brooklyn and only one had been considered talented enough to attend such an amazing school? There are so many questions of equity too big to explore in this small blog.

I believe this school did demonstrate that there are some students who have minds developed far beyond their years and I believe it would be a shame to deny those kids the opportunity to expand their capacities through the type of educational approach that Brooklyn School of Inquiry offers. However, this type of opportunity should be expanded for other students. I believe school students have incredible capacities in different areas and we should encourage them equally, not simply give an advantage to those who score well on a test.

While these are only a few thoughts and don’t sway me either way, I wanted to share them with you. I do believe that ‘Gifted and Talented’ programs alter the educational environment of a school and would love to research this further.

 

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A huge thanks go to the 8 students (and their parents) who stayed back after school, the incredible Principal Ms Donna Taylor, and the U.S. State Department for organising the trip.

Another rushed post! Hopefully you enjoyed it though. If you’ve got any thoughts as always, feel free to email me at ben.duggan@raisinghope.org.au

Charter Schools: Two Rivers Visit

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There are many examples of schools, both good and bad, in the United States (as in any country) but I am always amazed to see the intense debate about ‘charter schools’ going on here. An an Australian who can’t really see what a charter school is like in person, I was keen to take an opportunity to visit one when I could and see what the controversy was all about.

Fortunately, this month I am visiting the United States with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), run by the U.S. State Department. After putting a call out, I was lucky enough to have some teachers on my Twitter (@joemanko @Teachbaltshaw) suggest I should check out Two Rivers Public Charter School while in Washington D.C.

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For those who don’t know what charter schools are, Uncommon Schools offers a good summary here.

For charter schools the road has not been easy. There are continuous calls for more accountability, groups have filed lawsuits and others make arguments against them. While some organisations like teachers unions would naturally be opposed to ‘independent schools’ run with government funds I feel disallowing them completely would be a sad opportunity to see more flexible teachers develop and trial better learning models.

However, I believe that large societies who let the government run public services need to provide room to show the state how to innovate and improve what they offer. While I don’t think privatisation of education is a good option, allowing not-for-profit groups to run schools in an innovative way is a thing the U.S. should be proud of.

Two Rivers PCS is a great example of how a community came together to build a great school for their local kids. A huge thanks to the Principal Miss Maggie for taking me on a tour of her school with two students.

I was very impressed the fact that they use the same level of public funding per student as D.C. Public Schools (or slightly less) to provide a school that offers two fully qualified teachers per classroom (a senior and assistant teacher).  They also incorporate project based learning from the age of 3-13, allowing students to have a real-life and practical understanding of why they are learning different skills in different classes.

While I am sure this is the case in many other schools, students were all very happy, excited and loved their school very much. The two students I listened to were very happy with the way their classes were focused on a project they could relate to like redesigning an unused space locally to help the community, or providing a map and profiles of important people at the school for new students.

Speaking with a few teachers showed me how independent public schools can help reduce that buzzword ‘red tape’, allowing flexibility and . I’m often surprised at how regulated public schools can be both in Australia and around the world. While the school has accountability to the Charter Schools Board, all decisions are local and enable teachers to speak to the chief decision maker directly.

After all this, what impressed me most was how the school felt. The environment was happy, friendly and positive. It was how I wanted to see a school.

As you walk through the corridors, students work is displayed in a positive way, celebrating the project based work all students do as a class.  The colours were bright and happy and there was a great deal of light in the school, brightening the experience of students.

While this is only one example of a charter school, I’m glad this one exists.

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A huge thanks to the students who took me for a tour, the Principal Miss Maggie, my twitter friends and the US Embassy in Canberra who made this visit possible!

Sorry this post was rushed, blogging while travelling is more difficult than I thought!