Back in Whitefish Bay

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When I returned from my trip to Colombia, our yearly “back to school” letter from our school superintendent was waiting for me.  Along with the usual logistical information that we need for the start of the school year, he outlined some “big picture” goals that we will be focusing on as a district. One of the goals for the coming school year that he emphasized was a focus on the cultivation of  “thriving dispositions” in our students.  These “dispositions” were the work of my all time favorite committee that I have worked on–Whitefish Bay’s Transformational Educational Practices committee. A group of teachers, parent and community members who came together to try to create  vision of how to best prepare our students for the 21st Century.

Throughout my time on this committee I kept seeing so many ways that global education can  foster these skills in our kids.  My coursework in global education and my own attempts to “break out” of my classroom walls this year have led me to sincerely believe that all content areas and subjects can  be made more engaging or authentic when you infuse a global perspective into your teaching. But there is another truth my perspective on global ed. I have a natural bias towards this kind of teaching–I love to travel and I love to launch into big projects of any kind.  These tendencies have led me to become somewhat suspicious of my own enthusiasm.

These past weeks have given me a chance to gain some distance from my own teaching practice and view global education with more objectivity. I think it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on how what I saw in Colombia connects to the “seven thriving dispositions”.

Critical thinking: I found it to be interesting and informative to see and hear many references to the pedagogical work of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire during my time in Colombia.  His work views education as the ” practice of freedom’, the means by whimageich men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.  It was clearly evident that Colombians view education as an essential means of social mobility and transformation. Again and again teachers spoke of education as a path of  empowerment for  their students. I saw this the most clearly in my visits to the rural schools where teachers encouraged students to take responsibility for their  own learning. These students are some of the most vulnerable learners in Colombia, both economically and socially. The Nueva Esculea curriculum which was being implemented in these schools was designed to help students “learn to learn”.  Many key decisions were made by student leaders–the student elected government was included in all areas of schooling–from instruction to discipline of their peers.

Agility/Adaptability    In an effort to be responsive to the current changes and developments in the global labor market, the Colombian national government has significantly increased its investment in vocational training, ” standardising, shaping, evaluating and certificating national work competencies; and establishing a strong connection between labor market and the education system.” We were able to take a tour of a national imagevocational training school–SENA. Tuition for these schools is free and students can learn practical skills from hotel management, accounting etc. as well as technical skills such as applied robotics and computer automation. They have partnered with international companies and work with the Colombian business community to focus on high demand jobs. On our tour of this school we saw a class learning to program a robot, electrical engineering students learning English and fashion and design students working with high tech sewing machines. In the past the technical training provided by SENA has been considered something that only the poor would take advantage of, but in recent years, university students have come to realize that they have much to gain from the “real world” training that they can receive at these vocational schools.

Curiosity and Imagination I did not observe much in the way of open ended investigations or inquiry during my time in Colombia. The teachers I met with are interested in a including this more in their teaching, but the limitations of class size and resources has made this something that they have not been able to do. They were very interested in a presentation by my co-teacher about Project Based Learning, but were skeptical about its application in their schools–(even though open ended projects are built in to their new English language curriculum.)

Initiative/ Entrepreneurism Most of the schools I visited served poor or very poor student populations. Entrepreneurism was seen as a way to keep them in school–especially in the rural schools where parents might take them out to help with the harvest etc. At one school I visited, the final project of a unit of study was a market where they sold products that they had created in their class. At another school, they taught crafts such as beading and weaving as a way to earn extra money. The SENA trade school offered start up grants to students who wanted to start their own businesses. These projects were built out of a direct necessity that had an immediate application for the students lives.

Access and analyze information If there was one resource that seemed to have the biggest impact on teacher capacity and student performance, it was access to technology. The digital divide is stark in Colombia–especially between rural and urban schools. All of  the schools that I visited had computers of some kind, but only some of them had internet access. There were no classroom libraries, and even the school libraries had minimal resources. Because of this, students had limited opportunities to access any information outside what the teacher provided for them.

Effective Oral and Written Communication The Colombian government has determined  English language fluency to be an essential skill for the 21st century. This push to promote English has brought about rapid change in the way English is taught–the most of important of these being an emphasis on conversation, (instead of grammar). The new English language text books have compelling themes that are designed to get students talking: Stereotypes and Identity, Eating and Lifestyle Habits Around the World,  and Teen Culture are just some of the chapters that they study as they learn English.

Collaboration  The only place where I saw group work fully embraced was at the SENA trade school, where students worked together to complete projects, just as they would do in the work force. SENA also had direct instruction on the “soft skills” needed for collaborative work.

This simple act of trying to see these seven dispositions through a “global lens” has helped me to better understand what they are and how they can be applied to my school community. This is all that global education is. Looking at a topic or content area through a different filter as a way of seeing it with greater clarity. I am more committed than ever to continuing to find ways to help my students do the same in their learning this year and I am excited to encourage my teaching colleagues to do the same.



La Escuela Superior Normal!

image Usually at this time of year I have already started setting up my classroom. Typically, early  August is when I  launch into some crazy new teaching project. But this year, my predictable “end of summer” rhythm has been very different.  Even though I plan to go to visit my classroom and check in with my principal tomorrow, I find that I am thinking more about my Colombian host school-La Escuela Superior Normal Quindio, than my own!  It is strange,  but it seems like I should be  taking a taxi to La Escuela Normal  tomorrow instead of driving to Cumberland School! Over the the past three weeks I felt myself becoming less of  a visitor and more of a maestra as I got to know the teachers and students there.

La Escuela Superior Normal del Quindio serves mostly lower income students, but it considered one of the the top public schools of the city. Teachers felt  lucky to work there.

Maricel Restrepo, school principal

The students felt lucky to go there. The institution is actually three schools–a K-11 general education, a teacher preparation school, and an arts academy. Here are some statistics about this school that I still find mind  boggling:

  • There are a total of 3,000 students
  • Students attend in  TWO shifts!
  • Half of of the students come from 6:30am-12:30pm
  • the other half attends from 1pm-6:30 pm.
  • There are also two shifts of teachers.
  • The average class size ranges from 40-45 students.

These numbers are still almost impossible for me to get my head around. Which makes the composure and sense of humor of the  school’s dynamic principal, Maricel Restrepo even more incredible. While were were there she was completely re-imagining the school library with the intention that it become a welcoming place where kids want to come to read. When we were there she was just putting the finishing touches on her project, which included an actual jeep placed in the school’s courtyard–(intended to be another place where kid can read! )  I wonder how the students reacted to the completed project? I wonder what her next step to innovate and change her school will be?

I am also curious about the students.  How do our host teacher Nancy’s students  feel to FINALLY have her back in the classroom? (They had to working independently over the time that  Nancy was showing us around her school and region! ) During our time at La Escuela Superior Normal  we were  able to meet some of them–17-18 year olds who are training to become teachers.  Ryan and I even shared some classroom management tips with her class.  Most of our strategies centered around ways to keep a class quiet. (The Colombian classrooms we visited were much louder than what  we were used to at home.) Now I am wondering–will any of Nancy’s students be able to use any of the management strategies that we showed them? Were our ideas even practical in the context of a Colombian classroom of 40-50 students?

I wonder about Derly Moreno’s sweet 1st grade class–the group that  welcomed me to
imageboth observe and teach a lesson to them. Are they still learning about families?  What did they think of the posters of American families that I brought them?  They were all so adorable and I loved teaching them!

I wonder about the winners of the Spelling Bee that Ryan and I helped to judge. They will now go on the the city wide spelling bee in September. How are they studying? Which teachers will help them? The words on this competition were very difficult, ( I was grateful for a paper with the correct spellings when I was judging!) I am sure their teachers are going to be putting in many extra hours to help their students prepare for the next level.


I am so grateful to the teachers at this school for not only letting us into their classrooms, but into their lives as well.  They were so open and friendly–willing to accompany us, (and often drive us!)  all around the “coffee triangle” Like the teachers I work with at Cumberland School, they  worked very hard, but they knew how to have fun as well.  I still have many questions about how they are able to accomplish so much in their classrooms, especially given the limited resources and high student numbers that they had to work with. One thing I know for sure–I am not done asking them questions,  or having fun with them, even from so far away!





Right now I am packing my bags to get ready to depart Bogota.  I am no where near processing everything that I saw and experienced here, (get ready for some more blog posts!) But there are a few key things that I want to be sure NOT to forget  when I am getting ready to meet my new class of 2nd graders in a few shorts weeks:

LOVE YOUR STUDENTS Nancy Echeverri, our host teacher during our stay in Armenia, was imagea master teacher in every sense of the word. As the week went on, the respect that she had garnered from her colleagues and students become more and more apparent. Multiple times when we were walking down the streets of downtown Armenia former students would stop to hug her and tell her what was happening in their lives. She not only taught preservice teachers at the school where we were working, but taught at the university as well. She had not only traveled to the USA on a prestigious teaching fellowship, but had studied in England and India as well. It was not until the last day that we learned that she had helped to write the national English Language curriculum. I could go on and on. But the thing that stood out the most to me about Nancy, was the genuine love and respect that the paid to all of her students. She hugged and kissed every student we met. When a student was speaking with her, she gave them her full and absolute attention. She spoke of multiple former students whom she had helped to place in extended training, special projects and courses. This was something we saw with again and again with the Colombian teachers we met. A deep an abiding affection for the children and youth that they worked with. The clearly cared more about who their students were, than about what they could do.


EVERYTHING IS EASIER WITH A  PARTNER  My teaching partner Ryan Linton  kept me buckled in laughter for most of the trip–He also had an excellent sense of direction. I would probably still be wandering around Armenia if he had not been by my side.  There really are no words to describe how helpful it was to have someone to plan with and to go over the days experiences with. Ryan is such a skilled teacher and presenter.  He works at a school with a very different student population than my own, but we still found so much in common in our planning and goals. I will stay in touch and continue to find some way to collaborate with him next year—-And to top it off, he is a GREAT writer! I encourage you to check out his blog:

LET KIDS STRUGGLE.  During these weeks, even with the help and support of our host teacher, Ryan and I were left to figure a lot of things out. Mostly these were seemingly simple things, (like ordering breakfast–on our first few days we thought we could only order one thing–so we had a few days of eating only fruit for breakfast) I found that some of my best memories of this trip were when Ryan and I  were on our own, without a Spanish speaker to help us.  Once we did solve a problem, it was immensely satisfying. I have been thinking about this a lot, especially in relation to the independent learning that we observed in the rural schools that we visited. Their teacher was available to help, but only after they had tried to figure out a problem both on their own and with the help of their peers. It is one of the hardest things for me to do as a teacher–but I am going to try to “stay out of the way” as much as possible.

BE BRAVE Teach a lesson about “family life” to a class of 37 first graders. Serve as a judge for a high stakes spelling bee. Present at  an inservice for the city’s secondary English teachers. Try to dance salsa in crazy Colombian night club. Ride a Colombian roller coaster! Each of these things was terrifying to me for  different reasons, and I got through them all!  As this TGC  fellowship comes to a close I have been thinking about ways to extend this experience in a way that will reach and impact more elementary teachers. The idea of setting up such a big project is–no surprise–terrifying to me but I would hate for fear to be the reason I do not do something. I will just remind myself that I survived the roller coaster!


Question for kids: When is a time that you did something scary? How did you feel afterwards?




Global Perspectives


What is global education?  I was given the task of answering this question during a presentation to Colombian teachers. It should have been easy –I have spent the past year participating in a fellowship program that is focused on this topic.  But somehow I felt that the tables should have been turned.   Over the course of my time observing the Colombian culture and education system, I had come to realize that they had much more to teach me about the topic than I them.

Globalization is a reality of the 21st century.  We will need to prepare our students for a world where they will need to consider other perspectives, communicate and take action to solve problems. From what I have seen here, Colombian teachers are already well on 2016-07-20 10.14.05their way to infusing these competencies into their teaching practices. There is a huge push from the government to promote English language learning with a Bilingual 2020 Initiative. They are bringing English speakers from around the world to assist teachers in their classrooms.  Their English language curriculum is meant to be project based and includes many global topics. They are even working to making education authentic and purposeful by requiring 120 hours of community service  for school completion.

Something that I am trying to instill in my students is a curiosity about the world. I see this as a great need in the USA in general.  Our limited proficiency in foreign languages and our lack of understanding about other countries and cultures has real economic and political implications.  There is a striking disparity between what North Americans know about Colombia and what Colombians know about the USA.  I include myself among those whose knowledge of this country was limited to stereotypes,  (violence and the drug trade)  before coming here. In contrast, the Colombians I met were very knowledgable about US culture and politics.  Many of the teachers I met  actively sought out ways to learn more about the USA. One place they went to do this was the Colombo Americano Center in Armenia. This is a cultural organization that is supported by the US State Department and the Colombian government as way to promote language learning and cross cultural understanding. They sponsor exchange programs, discussion groups–even movie clubs.image

They run an incredible English Language training program called  Access. High school students who come from the most vulnerable economic levels are given priority to participate in a rigorous course that includes cultural and career training. Rural students are provided with transportation and snacks and materials are included. The caliber of the students who were selected for this program was extremely high. Most participants accomplish the highest rating of English language proficiency and are able to go on study at the university level. (My teaching partner Ryan Linton wrote a great blog post about a lesson he observed there). I wish we had an program like this in the States. A place where students could go and not only learn to speak other languages fluently, but also to consider  the perspectives of other countries and cultures in their relation to ours.

Meanwhile, I am excited to go home and do everything I can to tell the story of the Colombia that I have seen on my trip here. A country of warm and generous people, a country of stunning landscapes and abundant resources–(the best of which are the inquisitive and energetic future doctors, teachers, lawyers and diplomats that I have met here.)
image Question for kids: What country in the world do you know the most about? What country would you like to learn more about?


La Familia


I have been thinking a lot about family during my time in Colombia. Initially this was because I had planned a research question about family involvement in education. This is such a central piece of my own teaching practice that I thought it would be interesting to see how it fits into the Colombian education system. It could also have something to do with the fact that I have been missing my own family–this is  the longest amount of time hat I have been away from my own kids–(and my oldest is 18 years old!)

Because of this, I was especially happy to have the chance to share an evening with two young Colombian families.  Melissa, an English teacher at my host school invited us to spend an evening with her and her husband and two daughters–ages 7 and 8. They took us to the beautiful village of Filandia, where they met her friend Daisy, (also a teacher) and her husband and two daughters ages 3 and 4.

Filandia was a traditional “coffee town”. Brightly  colored buildings surrounded a central square that was filled with kids on their bikes, people taking walks and vendors selling fruit and arepas (grilimageled corn cakes).  Melissa’s oldest daughter Camilla was tour guide. (She was also my Spanish teacher. We had a great time teaching each other new words.) Camilla and her little sister, Laura attend a private Catholic school. This was the case of most of the teachers that I met. They chose to send their children to private school, even though it is an extra expense for their families.The main difference between the private and public schools is class size. The average class size in the public schools that we visited was between 32-40  students. The private schools are smaller and are able to provide more individualized instruction for their students. Their decisions reminded me of our decision to move to Whitefish Bay so that our kids could attend school there. They see education as an invaluable investment that is worth any sacrifices that they might have to make.

When we were in Filandia we met their friend Daisy and her husband. They had recently moved to the town in order to give their two daughters,  ages 3 and 4 a larger house with more room to play. They rent a house in town but have bought a small “finca” or farm just outside towimagen in the countryside. We were thrilled to be invited to spend the evening with them at their “farm”.  It was also a great opportunity to talk about families in Colombia. When I told people that I felt sad about my son moving away to college this fall they were surprised. Colombians typically live with their parents until they are married. Many will even live with their parents after they are married.  They were also surprised to learn that my husband and I live far from both of our families. Most people remain in the areas where they grew up. Daisy’s mother  lived on the same street as she and her husband. Grandparents, aunts and uncles form an essential social fabric which allows both parents to work and allows people to save the money they need when they come to the point where they will get married and strike out on their own.

We also spoke about their work as teachers. I asked about parent involvement in their schools. The biggest obstacle parents face is time. When parents work from 7am to 7pm there is no time to attend school meetings. There is also the issue of class size. When a teacher has 45 students in a class they lack the capacity to make strong individual relationships with the student families. When parents have limited or no access to the internet, it is not possible to use email for communication.  They also agreed that for the most part, Colombian parents have great respect for teachers and generally defer to their decisions.

Throughout this conversation the four little girls were swinging in hammocks, running in the garden and giggling non-stop. It was Friday night and they were happy to stay up late-until they got so tired that they were almost falling over. It reminded me so much of when my own kids were little. Some experiences just transcend language, culture and time. Family is family where ever you are!


Question for kids: In Colombia I saw kids going to parks with their families, playing games with their families and visiting friends with their families? What do you like to do with your family for fun? 


Learning to Learn

imageStudent choice, collaboration and differentiation. These are all things that I work to facilitate in my teaching.  It was both exciting and inspiring to see these strategies in practice at a group of rural schools that I was able to visit this week. These schools were run on the innovative Escuelas Nuevas teaching model.  This model has received  international recognition and was recently featured in two articles in the New York Times: Make a School A Democracy By David Kirp  and Children Thrive in Colombia’s Rural Schools by Sarah Hamdon .  As luck would have it, our host teacher Nancy Echeverri has done research on these schools and was able to arrange for our visits.


The Escuelas Neuvas model was created by a Colombian educator in the 1970’s as a way to improve the education of rural children. The idea was to create a model that would allow one teacher to teach multiple grades.   At the Sede Corinto IE Caimot school, one teacher,  Embera Chami was teaching a class of  20 kids ranging from Kindergarten to 5th grade.
How does this work? A central component of this model is the fact that much of the learning is student directed.  At each of the schools we visited we were greeted by the student leaders. These leaders are elected by their peers and are responsible for taking attendance, creating and enforcing class rules and helping to design projects. At each of the taimagebles where the students were working, there were also “leaders”–students responsible for facilitating the day’s learning. Even a kindergartener proudly introduced himself as his table leader and was able to explain the task for the day and what needed to be done!

The Escuelas Neuvas curriculum was designed to  allow students to work with minimal teacher support. It incorporates hands-on projects that could be done using readily available materials. Because all Escuelas Nuevas schools use the same curriculum, a student from a migrant farming family can pick up where they left off, regardless of where they were before. The title of the book is Aprender a Aprender which means “Learning to Learn.” From what I observed this is exactly what these kids were doing!



The lessons are based on “hands on” activities and kids were doing different activities all around the room. At one table a group of kindergarteners was completing a puzzle. At another table a group of 2nd graders were learning how to use Cuisinare rods to learn pre-multiplication concepts. At yet another table a group of 3rd graders was deciding who would bring materials that they would need to do an experiment  the next day. When one student was wandering out of his seat other students directed him back to his learning. The teacher moved around the room until she came to a group of 4th graders who had just started a lesson on coordinate grids. She showed them how to use a chess board to play a game that was described in their books. Some of the groups included students of different grade levels if they were able to do the content of that lesson.

It was easy to forget the challenges that most of these students dealt with in their daily lives. Most of their parents worked on the surrounding coffee farms–work that involved long hours and very  low pay. Their teacher explained that many of the children walked an hour each way to school each day.  Many had parents who did not read or write.  Students often abruptly left the school for periods of time.

image But the statistics are on their side. The students in the Escuelas Nuevas model consistently outperform their peers who are at traditional schools. In fact at one school we visited, a student’s parents were professors at a local university. They chose to place their son in a rural school because they recognized the value of this model. With very  limited resources teachers  are able to deliver high quality instruction,  teaching their students not only how to learn, but to love to learn!

I felt so lucky to see this model in action and to get to speak with  Embera Chami about her teaching practice.  When I asked her if she liked working in the rural schools her answer was clear –her face  beamed with a broad smile.  Just like that of most of the students that I met!

QUESTION FOR KIDS: The students at the Sede Corinto IE Caimot school learn in a “one room school”, with all grades working together. What would you like about going to a school like this?

What questions do you have for the students of a rural school?