They Called Me an “Innovative Education Visionary”!

The Gold Star See Program is a place for Smart Exemplary Educators (SEE’s) to network, collaborate, refine skills, talk and discuss all things education. There is a point system. Reading my article is worth 50 pts!! Whoot Whoot!!

I hope I can live up to such a title, “Innovative Education Visionary”.


Raising 21st Century Learners: Media

If you have been following, you know that I moved my family from Suburbia Canada to Beijing in an attempt to shock my kids to be 21st Century Learners. There are other posts about other topics. This one is about Media.

One of the 21st Century Learning Skills centers on media literacy and media critical thinking. While I was in Shenzhen, across the pond from Hong Kong, I found the media most interesting.

Hong Kong was absorbed by the Central Chinese Government in 1997 when the British Lease of Hong Kong expired. However, they were so used to free speech, democracy and capitalism, that they basically have declared themselves a semi city state. A trip to Hong Kong is considered a new entry into China on my Visa.

Hong Kong is a foreign country to China with “outside media”. The Bird Flu outbreak is in full stride. In Beijing, it does not look like the Bird Flu is very dangerous, but our television is far away from the outside world. Watching the news in Shenzhen, you get Hong Kong news. It is curious that in the middle of a story, all of a sudden the news reporter gets cut off and they go to a commercial break. But somehow, the commercial break is interrupted when a new news article begins.

This censorship has been going on very long. If I do a Google search for Tienanmen without my VPN turned on, I get no Youtube video, I get some recent tourist videos and some text about Mao’s mausoleum.  When my VPN is tuned on, then I get Youtube videos and Wikipedia about all of the same things in addition to raw video and BBC video of the student massacres. When we talk to Chinese students, they are unaware of what happened at Tienanmen Square. I had forgotten I was in China and I was hoping that there would be some information at the square about the student violence. Why was I surprised when there was nothing? So on our return to the apartment, the first thing I did was tell the twins to research the happenings. Now that they are aware, I would like to return so that they can focus on the political and the free speech, rather than being distracted by the mobs of girls wanting their pictures taken with the blond haired twins and the Forbidden City.

In tech class, their teacher is asking them to do a project on photo tampering. They are learning that even before Abraham Lincoln, people have been using media to put a twist on things. They are learning how to photoshop their own pictures.

I hope my kids will start to think about the media. The censorship in China, the history of using media to twist perspectives and the knowledge of how easy it is, are all examples presented to my sons about the importance of Media Literacy.

Raising 21st Century Learners- Communication

Six weeks ago, I uprooted my wife and 14 year old twin sons from a perfectly average Canadian small town suburban life to go live in Beijing, China. My sons were attending the same middle school that I attended and we were living in a house less than 1 km away from my old homestead. We moved as far away as geographically and culturally possible as we could to Beijing.

My kids will need different attitudes and experiences than I did to be successful in the near future and a disruptive event was required to snap them out of the comfortable lull of suburbia. We are half way through our adventure, and like any good tale, there are lots of lessons, some pleasant, and others more trying. This blog entry is about the Communication and Media Literacy aspects of 21st Century Learning. Other aspects will follow.

Communication, Media Literacy and Critical thinking are such difficult things to instill in students with authentic examples. Technology has had an almost unfathomable influence on communication and that communication has changed our world. One could argue it started in earnest in Egypt with Papyrus, followed by Roman roads of communication, to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the internet and most recently mobile phones. Communication has been the key to many recent world events. Some examples include the invasion of Iraq, the capture of Osama Bin Laden, The Arab Spring movement, and the current unrest in Syria. A multitude of governments fell and history changed in a short period of time because of communication. Who would have thought that the strong holds of Iraq, Egypt and Libya would change?

The ability to communicate and distinguish yourself from those around you will be crucial going forward. When I was in high school, I only had to compete against some 2000 classmates in a small province in order to find a good job and make a good life. Today, my sons classmates and neighbors  number 1.5 billion. I was hoping that our trip to China would help them realize that they need to compete with so many more, and different kinds of people,  as well as provide unique opportunities for then to learn about different aspects of communication such as twitter, essay, video, Youtube and blog. I thought there would be some authentic prompts to discuss.

There are 52 different countries represented at the school with all of their different languages and cultures. It is like going to Epcot everyday. Although it is true that English is the language that binds them all together, as you sit in a classroom and walk through the halls, there are a myriad of new words, accents and languages being spoken. At first, it is difficult to understand some students even though it is English. But shortly you get to expect the accents.  As Seth and Fin are walking around the corner, there is a Russian conversation happening and my kids are starting to understand what Russian sounds like. But as they walk by, the two Russians turn around and say Hello in English. The ability to switch from one to another seamlessly is important.

Learning languages in a classroom and by individual interactions are very different. My kids are learning some Korean, not because they are in a class, not because someone set up a language program, but because they have met a Korean friend and they ask questions like, “how do you say…?” The twins are taking Mandarin as part of their course work. They are not new to learning other languages in class as they were enrolled in French Immersion their entire school lives. However, they seem to have a passion for learning Mandarin. Although I am certain their Mandarin teacher is wonderful, I do not believe that their newfound desire to learn a new language came from the classroom. The largest mother tongue at the school is Mandarin, so if they want to talk to their friends, understand jokes, be involved in the gossip, order ice cream and barter for their new favorite pair of shoes, they need to learn a different language. Although they learned French, it was only because their parents and teachers tell them it is important. But even living in Moncton where it is almost 50% English and French, there is no real need to use it. Where can you go that they do not speak English? But here is China, there are enough situations that knowing Mandarin gets you things that you want, like friends, connections, ice cream and shoes. There is a synergy required between the need to communicate and the desire to learn a new language.

Communication is a two way street, requiring both a speaker and an audience. I was hoping that “The Twins” would use Twitter, Facebook and a Blog. It was hoped that kids would follow “The Twins” and there would be a two way conversation. This is not what happened thus far. There are three major distractions. Firstly, most of those services are blocked by the Chinese Government. There is a way around it by using a VPN, but our whole family is sharing one VPN. By the time all the members of our family are done talking to friends and family, there is virtually no time left in the day to post and read online. Secondly, there is not nearly enough time in the day to do their significant amount of homework, interact with people and have time left to produce digital content. Students who said they would follow, they quickly lose interest because the boys are not posting. And if their followers are not posting, why would the twins curate and contribute to their social networks. You need to have good content to have followers, and having followers is instrumental for the motivation of creation. There is a synergy required between having content to deliver and an audience for whom to create.

Finding two communications is difficult,even when there are existing relationships between individuals. This will be an important hurdle to overcome before we can really enter the realm of 21st Century Learning.

Raising 21st Century Learners- Environment

Raising 21st Century Learners : The Environment

A short while ago, I uprooted my wife and 14 year old twin sons from a perfectly average Canadian small town suburban life to go live in Beijing, China. My sons were attending the same middle school that I attended and living in a house less than 1 km away from my old homestead. We moved as far away as geographically and culturally possible as we could to Beijing. My kids will need different attitudes and experiences than I did to be successful in the near future and a disruptive event was required to snap them out of the comfortable lull of suburbia. We are half way through our adventure, and like any good tale, there are lots of lessons, some pleasant, and others more trying. This blog entry is about the environment. Other aspects will follow.

Environmental Issues

Perhaps the most obvious new “in your face”, as well as in your lungs, on your skin and on your mind impression, is the environmental issues. Although at home we have a recycling program, observe Earth Hour and have green initiatives, it is difficult to grasp the urgency of a faraway idea of Global Warming and the need to care for our limited environment while playing in green backyards, driving through hours of forested highways, breathing crystal clean air, drinking water straight from the tap and swimming in local streams. How am I going to teach lessons of a shrinking environment when they are immersed by ubiquitous and fresh green and blue?

As we are preparing to fly to Beijing, the infamous air quality of Beijing broke records every day, for 20 consecutive days. It was so bad, that airplanes were diverted due to lack of visibility. We were told that some days in February were so bad that you could not see the building 20 ft beside you. What have we gotten into? But we could not change our minds. Tickets were purchased and my replacement was already in place at work. Off we went.

The plane landed and we walked through the connecting gangway. Still inside, the air hit us in the face with the strong smell of burning metal. It was like cutting through bolts or even brake pads after going down Fundy National Park. It burns the back of the throat. The drive from the airport had an eerie haze, somewhat similar to the fog at Cape Enrage, but yellow brown. The fog at Cape did not burn and taste. I started to cough almost immediately. This is going to be a long 3 months.


Our first day at the school is a Saturday. The boys decided to go and play some soccer on the field in the fog. It was not 5 minutes and the soccer coach came out and told us to moderate our outdoor time. We were told that we should minimize our walking outside. Running was absolutely not allowed without a mask. He was nice enough to give us a box of masks. What an odd concept for the twins. In Canada, we sometimes cancel games due to thunder, or rain or snow. In Beijing, they cancel games because of air quality. The school has to check the air quality readings before every lunch hour to determine if it is safe to send the kids outside to play. It might be one thing for a few months of exposure, but I wonder about the impact of smog on young developing lungs and then extended over a lifetime.

Taxi drivers, bicyclist, beggars, ladies in nice dresses and men in suits walk around the city spitting and blowing snot out of their nostrils on the sidewalks as they try to clear their airways congested from the pollution. One would have to wash their car daily because every day there is a thin film of pollution  covering everything. The odd thing is, they do not know any better. For the lifetime of the citizens, it has always been that way. It is normal. The largest contributors seem to be the coal fired factories, coal fired heating plants, diesel trucks and all the cars. This problem is similar in every city in China and it seems to be largely accepted by the population. I hope the twins have a better understanding of what it was like in London in the Industrial Revolution and Oliver Twist.

Although the air is the most obvious, there are other environmental issues at hand. The water from the tap is suitable for washing and brushing teeth, but not for drinking. When we eat at a restaurant, we have to ask for no ice. In some places we have to avoid drinking out of the glasses, choosing instead to wash the pop can and then drink directly. The school has water fountains that are safe to drink from only because of a high tech filtration system located in the basement.

There were people fishing out of the nearby canal that has no flow. The water is black, with a film of scum. Rotting reaches a pinnacle in the summer and I am told that the stench is quite strong. On a different section of the canal that was only inches deep, there were 7 people dressed in new clean crisp business suits, pant legs rolled up, wading through the water in their bare feet with nets looking for frogs. It turns out that the Chinese restaurant 3 football fields away has bullfrog on the menu. If the water is suitable for teeth brushing, but not drinking, it must be contaminated with chemicals such as the heavy metals that make China so famous. Do they really want to be eating fish and frogs from that soup?

Coming to China has allowed my boys to do many new things that we would never do at home. Some examples are surprising. My boys have never been to a farm or done much gardening despite being surrounded by them in Riverview. They are ubiquitous and therefore just something you drive by and not worth a second glance. However, in Beijing, the large population, many of whom are vegetarian, demands a large amount of food. There are many open air markets with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fresh, unrefrigerated beef, poultry and fish hanging out in the sun. No wonder the Bird Flu is so prevalent here.


An organic Farm is quite a novelty here and therefore is special and worthy of a field trip. It took coming to Beijing to have my sons visit an organic farm, to get their hands dirty and plant some vegetables.


As the song goes, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. They put all the trees in a museum and charged the people a buck just to see’em.” I wonder what will go through the boys minds the next time we are hiking through a national park, or when we turn out the lights for Earth Day. 21st Century Learners need to recognize that although we share this small world, the world that they live in is not the same everywhere. Our actions in New Brunswick impact Mother Earth and people in other parts of the world. The products we buy may be contributing to pollution for many others. We need to learn from others and avoid their mistakes. I wonder how our actions will change when we return. I think our home garden will expand with the help of two teen workers.

These have all been very personal lessons. There are some other larger lessons to learn from a school and curriculum point of view. Academically, people are searching for topics and projects that will allow students to investigate the many different aspects for school rather than having them separated into course. It seems to me that air quality, water quality and food production could be a wonderful science, engineering, political, law, and design, historical and cultural project. What is in the air that we breathe? What is in the water that we drink? How do the filters work? Do the filters work? What contributes to a good day or a bad day? Is there a trend such as the day of the week? Is the weather better after a wind or a good rain? How do they make it rain? What parts of this problem are technology and what parts are cultural? Can we solve this problem with a social program, a gadget or a law? Can students design a gadget, program or policy to help? Can they present, implement and cause a change, rather than just talk about it?

There are so many 21st Century Learning Lessons waiting to be taught here in Beijing. It is not the first place I think of when one says innovative modern education. Lessons taught here in Beijing will travel to New Brunswick when we return. But these are big lessons, that take some time to percolate to the core of a person and these lessons take longer than 10 or 14 days. There are many inter-working aspects of a 21st Century Learning project waiting to be investigated in Beijing. Check back later for the next installment.

Discovery Channel Webinar with Sir Ken Robinson

Early in the morning, I asked the staff at CISB if they wanted to join me while I watched the Discovery Channel Webinar of Sir Ken Robinson as he talked about finding your element, which coincides with his new book. It was a fun way to celebrate National Teacher’s week in the US.


Heidi Jacobs and Curriculum 21 Workshop at CISB

Heidi Jacobs gave a day long workshop about Curriculum 21 and “Right Now Skills” on March 23rd, 2013. She highlighted a number of applications, web pages and technologies that can help in a classroom. However, it is mostly about changing the way that classroom happens.