Making Connections

Travel not only helps you widen your understanding of the world, it allows you to deepen understanding you already have. Visiting schools in other countries provides a window into the students’ lives and provides a point of reflection about our educational system and our lives.

I first visited China in 2008 as a part of a school exploration trip. We were adding a world language program and so received a grant for any interested teachers to travel to China to learn about Chinese culture and some Mandarin basics. So I spent a week in Shanghai learning about Chinese culture, visiting different sights in and around Shanghai, and learning some very basic Mandarin (tones, counting to 10, and how to introduce myself and not much more). We dressed up in regional outfits and ate noodles and dumplings –a very touristy experience. I extended my trip and traveled to Beijing—continuing with the tourist theme of seeing the sights. I was there just before the summer Olympics and so got to see first hand some of the measures that China was taking to get ready—metal detectors at subway stations, forced reduction of car usage in order to decrease pollution, and all the Olympic souvenirs being sold.

In 2011 we had our first 8th grade class and wanted a class trip that could be culmination of student learning –intertwining world language study, learning about others, and environmental science. My principal and I traveled to Chengdu to see if we could design a learning experience that would fit our needs. Chengdu was ideal because it fit our criteria—Chengdu is one of the locations where giant pandas are (in captivity and in the wild) and we knew people who had connections to both the pandas as well as local schools.

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 6.07.50 PMThe first week of the trip is spent in Chengdu, visiting the pandas as well as several primary schools—one private, one private and attached to a company, and one public. The pandas are adorable and learning about their conservation is fascinating (as are the reintroduction efforts) but the real learning for the students and me happens at the schools. This is where we get a glimpse into the classrooms and what the lives the students who attend these schools are like.

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 6.09.02 PMThis first week is still fairly surface level – the schools show off their best students and teach our students different Chinese traditions – calligraphy, tea ceremonies, fan painting, dumpling making, etc. These activities make for great pictures but most of the interactions between our students and theirs are brief and temporary. We exchange gifts but little else and each night our students return to the hotel. There is a family visit attached to this first week but most families focus on showing our students the best their city has to offer—taking them shopping and to different museums.



It’s the second week though where our students start to realize what it might be like to live in China. We travel about 40 miles to the city of Dujiangyan, and even though we tell the students that they will be staying in the dorms of the middle-high school that we visit, it doesn’t start to sink in until we are unloading their luggage from the bus and showing them the room and bunk beds that the will be their home for the next four nights.

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And even though the school provides our students with some of the best rooms they have, it is a far cry from what they are used to. Bunk beds, an outside sink area, and a toilet/shower room (without an actual toilet) are new and different. Eating on campus cafeteria, even with “special” food including fried chicken and French fries is very different than what they eat at home. Having classes after dinner (even if it’s tai chi) is different. And being woken up at 5:30am to get ready for the day is also different. These experiences provide a new lens for our students to look at their lives with.

In addition, perhaps as importantly, these five days are an opportunity for our students to spend time with a Dujiangyan student and to build connections. Our students are buddied up and theDujiangyan buddy allows our students a glimpse into their lives. They go to classes together (even if the classes are special ones like Chinese dance and block printing), visit local sights together, eat together, and it all culminates in a visit with this buddy’s family. Most of our students say that this family visit is their favorite experience during the trip. The last day, when we are all saying good bye, you can see the impact these connections have made: students taking selfies all over the place, contact information being exchanged, and tears being exchanged.

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This why we continue to bring our students to China—they learn about Chinese culture, eat spicy Sichuan food, and take a lot of photos of cute pandas but they also now have a relationship with someone in China. Their perspective has been changed, and now China is a not far away country but a place where they have fond memories and a personal connection to their buddies, their buddies’ families, and the teachers who taught them about China.

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As I set off with my trusty backpack…


I am an explorer. People who know me wouldn’t disagree with the statement and would probably point to my love of travel as evidence. But I would argue that I travel because I am an explorer, not that I am an explorer because I travel. This is a distinction that I wouldn’t have made before today

But I became an educator because I am an explorer; I am curious and wanted to learn more about the world and people around me. Being an educator gives you license to learn anything and everything, but it’s also an opportunity to uncover how the world works and to bring that world to my students. I am also an explorer in the classroom, both an ethnographer and an archeologist, uncovering truths and information about my students.

Labeling educators as explorers can be an important shift in how teachers and the outside world think of teachers. On one hand, some people see teachers as experts in a subject matter who then impart that knowledge to students. Another view of teachers is as regurgitators of information that someone else has deemed important. A third view is that of a teacher as a facilitator of learning experiences. Which view is most popular seems to ebb and flow with time and which education trend is currently in fashion. Educators as explorers is obviously most complementary with the third view of teachers –- a view where teachers are continuing to learn and gather knowledge and can use that knowledge to craft engaging and empowering learning experiences for their students.

Explorers venture off into unknown (to them) territory to learn new information; information that they then translate into a medium that others can understand. Traditionally, they also play a role in exposing you to new people and new experiences you didn’t even know existed. And since many organizations understand the value of having teachers value what organization values (geography, a tech tool, India), teachers are given opportunities to explore in ways that other professions aren’t afforded. Often these are geared toward specific content areas and/or age groups but it’s amazing what I am allowed to spend time learning (often for free and sometimes even paid to learn.)

The teachers who are explorers learn for learning’s sake, those who know that no knowledge is wasted, seek out these opportunities. Russian history workshops taught by experts (i.e. university professors) passionate about the topic –sign me up. Studying butterflies in Costa Rica — I am there. What role plankton plays in the ocean and on our planet? — I can’t wait (especially if it has an in the field aspect).

As a teacher, I tromp off to these conferences, experiences, or online opportunities to gain knowledge and skills that I can bring back to my students. I translate my learning experiences into a medium where the students are exposed to this new information and ideas — my role is open their eyes and to provide experiences that might be contradictory to their world view so that their understanding of the world and how it works is widened.

As an educator who wants my students to have a voice and choice in their learning and who crafts inquiry-based learning experiences, I need to have a diverse knowledge base. My gain in knowledge is their gain.

Having an explorer’s mindset allows me to craft learning experiences where my students’ curiosity drives the conversation and learning. I am okay with the unknown and have a skill set where I am confident (perhaps unreasonably) that I can figure out enough information to help students with what they need help with. My role becomes one of a connector — I connect students to information, to experts, and to locations where they can learn the information that is needed. I translate the unknown into explorable bits so that students themselves are explorers of new information, new skills, and new learning experiences.

Today, I participated in a meet-up sponsored by National Geographic. I was lucky enough to hear the stories of explorers (both educators and explorers in the more traditional sense) and as with other learning experiences, my brain went into overdrive on how to share this information with others — how might I translate my experience and learnings into a format my colleagues and students could understand?

Archeology? I love archeology and learning about the past. This love carried me through nine years of Latin, three years of classical Greek, and one fabulous dig in Ecuador but today’s insight and learning was tied to STEM. I had never thought about how much STEM is involved in archeology. Listening Christine Lee, a bio archeologist, talk about her work in Mongolia all I could think about was how this could be a path to bring more students who traditionally are not involved in STEM in college and as a career into the STEM world. How might we use archeology to inspire K-12 students to be curious problem-solvers? How might this lead to more diverse and varied understanding of what it means to be a scientist?

Shah Selbe Talking About His Lab

Examples of how technology can solve problems that are facing the world today? Yes, please! Shah Selbe provided a wow factor of what can happen when you bring technology and engineering into conservation projects as well as a eureka moment. I helped run a hack-a-thon last year for our middle school students where they utilized the Internet of Things (IoT) to solve local problems. His examples of how he and his collaborators are utilizing IoT to solve global problems helped push my thinking what the students might focus on and might actually prototype (check out It also was an example of the value that technology can add to conservation work, and that by compartmentalizing disciplines and subject areas, we limit out-of-the-box and innovative thinking. He doesn’t know this but I have already started to brainstorm ways to use what he is working on to inspire and to push my students’ thinking.

Broadening my understanding of US history? Learning information that expands my understanding of US history is always a bonus. Tom Herman presented on resources about the Anza Expedition, a journey by Juan Bautista de Anza (and 240 men, women, and children) in 1776 from New Spain to establish a settlement at the San Francisco Bay. This could be a perfect new project-based learning unit for either the 4th or 5th grade classes — 4th grade studies California history (and visits the Bautista mission) and 5th grade studies the formation of the United States. Thoughts are swirling about head about where to take this next.

So as I set off to work this morning with my trusty backpack, I think about the new possibilities out there. What might I explore next?

All I know is that having opportunities to interact with other explorers and experts in the field allows me to continue to learn and provide better learning experiences for my students, and I thank National Geographic for allowing me to spend two days uncovering new insights and discovering that I too am an explorer.

Originally Published on Medium at

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Teaching Global Competency


Does your school focus on making sure students are ready for a global society? What skills, attitudes, and knowledge is taught? What is missing? Will your students have the skills necessary to be successful and active participants in college and beyond?

In our area of the country, global competency and global education are becoming a hot topic (as they should be). Districts and schools are having conversations about what it means to be a globally competent student and which skills, attitudes, and knowledge students need to be success in today’s global economy.

The California Department of Education just wrapped up its second day of a global education summit, looking for feedback, inspiration, and clarity on what educators think California should focus on in terms of global education.

Should schools focus on foreign language instruction, teaching about other countries and other people, or environmental projects that touch all of us? There are some fabulous resources out there for teaching global education and global competency for both students and teachers some of which were shared at the CA Global Education Summit.

National Geographic has started a Nat Geo Educator Certification program to support educators developing students in the skills, attitudes, and knowledge deemed necessary for students to be globally competent.. Though the program is currently in beta, the educator community has a lot of resources on teaching students about the world. Check it out at

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has a wealth of resources including a framework for state action on global education and a Teacher Guide to K-12 Global Education Grade Level Indicators. Colleagues at my school have found these particularly useful since the Teacher Guide is broken down into grade level spans and has concrete indicators of the skills and knowledge students might demonstrate as globally competent individuals.

The Asia Society also has delineated what a global competent student might look like and identified resources to prepare students. They also have how to guides as well as a network of schools (International Studies School Network) focused on closing the achievement gap and addressing the opportunity gap between what is being taught in schools and what a student needs to be a successful and productive member of our global society.

Teaching environmental science or bringing elements of environmental science into your classroom or existing content is a great way to help students see the interconnectedness of the environment, our communities, and the world (a skill necessary to be globally competent and climate literate). One way to connected to others in real world through citizen science projects and activities. Check out SciStarter for numerous projects you can do with your students around a variety of topics. Students can count birds for or take pictures of ladybugs they find in the Spot the Ladybug project or help track air pollution in the AirVisual: The Air Pollution Monitoring Project.

One focus of the CA Global Ed Summit (Day 2) was thinking about global education in terms of career and CTE (career and technical education) and the skills needed to be successful in life. Global education can be content knowledge (such as learning a foreign language or participating as a citizen scientist) but teachers can also focus on helping students develop specific skills and attitudes necessary to be global competent and ready for college, career, and beyond.

A specific skill and attitude students need to have to be globally competent is the ability to see others’ points of view. Developing empathy and an understanding of others can be developed by traveling but also can be developed through a variety in classroom activities. Picture books and novels are great starting places for students to put themselves in others’ shoes and to refine their understanding of others’ points of view. When students immerse themselves in a story, especially a story with a character who is different from them, they need to learn how to think like the character in order to understanding the characters’ thoughts and motivations.

Another way to help students learn how to think about others is to create opportunities to use the design thinking process to solve real world problems. The beauty of design thinking is that it is a human-centered process that asks students to step outside themselves and to design solutions for someone else. It provides opportunities for explicit empathy gathering since the students are asked to really understand the point of view and needs of the person they are designing for. Students are asked again and again to think about and understand others, a skill necessary to be successful in our global society.

To be part of the conversation on global education and how schools focusing on (or not focusing on) developing the skills, attitudes, and knowledge necessary for students to become globally competent, follow #globaled or join #globaledchat on Thursdays 8pm EST/ 5pm PST.

To learn more about what was discussed at the CA Global Education Summit, check out my Storify: and/or join the CA Global Education Network at

Farmers' Market

Hanging out with students from our sister school in China

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