Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Visiting a grassland?

I wrote this post in Beijing two days ago.

We just returned to Beijing and I’m in my old room with phone service so I can text to family and work. Over the last few days I’ve completely lost track of time and the day of the week. I had to look it up to see that it is Sunday here and Saturday back home. Though delayed, I will share my experiences in order. It will take a few days as there have been many.

Our days are very structured, full, and laden with food and gifts from our hosts. I think I’ve gained ten pounds and I know I have at least 25 pounds of gifts to add to my already heavy bags. The gifts might put me over the limit for baggage on the way home.

One of the trips we took in Hebei Province was to what our hosts called a grasslands. We thought it was a nature preserve with animals similar to what you would see at a zoo with a natural setting. The reality is far from this. We travelled a couple hours north to the Mongolian border climbing to a height of about 4200 feet.

The trip was enlightening. Small, medium, and large plots of land devoted to farming were visible on both sides of the road. All the vegetables served at the Olympics came from this area. During the entire drive I only saw three tractors, all three being very small. I saw more donkey and mule driven carts than I did modern machinery, but what was most visible was the large number of people working the farms by hand. In between the planting were small sheep herds tended by one herder.

On this trip I also observed the old and the new China, coal powered plants spewing forth their black emissions and solar powered street lights. Though China has replaced us as the number one country for carbon emissions they are also spending billions to find new and cheaper sources of energy. These include solar and wind sources.

When we came out of the mountains, we were greeted by an unbelievable site; a plateau that was so vast you could see nothing but flat grasslands on three sides. On the fourth were low mountains. It was then that we were told that we were near Mongolia and that we were going to visit Zhangbei Zhongdu Grassland, a vacation destination. Upon entering the area we were greeted by a group of riders on Mongolian ponies. In the picture you will also see three black cars in front of the bus. I’ll talk more about this in a later post.

We were then taken into a yurt where we were treated like royalty. Traditional foods were awaiting us in the yurt. There were goat cheeses, a dry meat of some kind, a spicy vegetable, and a drink was poured that appeared to be warmed milk, but with a different taste. When I added toasted seeds of some kind it was drinkable. Oh, there was also a pastry that was quite good and small, hard cookies that were also good. They performed traditional dances, played music on traditional instruments, and sang Mongolian songs. They also gave each one of us a beautiful white scarf after we blessed the heavens, the earth, crossed our hand on our forehead and drank a shot glass of a very fiery local liquor.

Like most of our activities in China, there was too little time devoted to this visit. The people were warm and truly interested in learning about us as we were them, but there just wasn’t the time. All too soon we had to leave, driving by the feisty, tethered ponies, saddled camels, and grasslands with grass that grows to be four feet tall in the fall.

Next I will share my visit to a high school since I was able to switch groups.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Finally, a school visit!

It seems that the stories from last night were not accurate. It is safe to be out at night and there is some confusion as to whether they enforce the written curfew. There are, however, some in the group that will not stay another night in the current hotel. This offended some high-ranking hosts that led to some serious discussions, hurt feelings, and emotion. The net result is that we are packing up to try a newer hotel about 30 minutes away. I fear the smoke and other things cited as needing to move may not be much better.
Not having Internet and not being able to use the phone are troubling me. I had my cell phone set up for international calls, but it won’t work and all the numbers I was given if there was a problem result in “Sorry, you didn’t apply for this service” and no operator intercept. It is difficult because of not being able to communicate with family and work through texting as I have been or Skype which I have not been able to do even in Beijing. Someone out there might actually be concerned with what is happening in China for me.
I visited a primary school (grades 1-5) this morning that made everything else seem less important. The teachers and students were wonderful to see and engage with. Everything we have heard and read about the Chinese system was shown to be true. The students are motivated and participate. We spent about 3 hours in the school seeing the following activities.
· Art class where we were given student work.
· A presentation by six girls on a Chinese instrument followed by being tutored on the Olympic song with the instrument.
· Watching and participating in the daily exercise program in the courtyard where we worked up quite a sweat in ten minutes.
· A physical education class where girls were doing gymnastics.
· A unicycle demonstration.
· A fourth-grade English class. The teacher was using a PowerPoint in the lesson focused on vocabulary around a bus trip to the zoo to visit the animals. The teacher used choral response to practice vocabulary, question and response to check for understanding, a guessing game to practice numbers, and then engaged us in question and answers. As long as we stayed on the words they were practicing they did a wonderful job in answering questions such as what is your favorite animal. When we deviated, such as asking what pandas ate, they struggled to understand the question.
I was struck by the focus on art and physical education with English being the only core class we observed. I don’t believe if we had visiting teachers that we would focus on observations in these content areas. As with everything else the visit was structured and we each had a teacher or other adult moving us from one place to another. It was over much too quickly.
The visit ended with an opportunity to share with the principal and teachers. It was here that I was reminded about hierarchy. I brought along packets in an attempt to invite collaboration between our schools and theirs. I first tried to share it with a teacher who quickly said no you need to speak to the principal. I then was successful in sharing the packet and a gift. Shortly after, she came back with someone higher on the hierarchy who I again shared with our desire for collaboration. As time was running out a new individual was introduced to me, but I was not able to share with him. I believe that there is a good chance to hear back from them.
Tomorrow is another visit, unfortunately for me the last and our group will be visiting a vocational school so I will not be able to visit a middle or high school.
Well the hotel issue is behind us. We are in a new hotel 30 minutes south of the old hotel. I am actually the first person to occupy room 807 as all of us are in new rooms. This is five star far better even than the Beijing Hotel. It is located in a community under unbelievable construction. Old buildings are being torn down and replaced by modern high rises on a magnitude I have never witnessed. The hotel we were previously in is government owned and the new on is privately financed. As part of the Chinese stimulus package the government is putting in the infrastructure such as roads and power and private enterprise is putting up the buildings. I’ll send a picture of the entrance to the two hotels and see if Kevin can include them in this post.

Beijing and beyond: banquet, bus rides and a no-star hotel

I have much more to share about Beijing, but I need to share with you the bus ride to Zhangjiakou. It took over three and one-half hours to go about 100 miles into the mountains north of Beijing. That included a stop to check what was making noise and leaking from the bus and a ten minute stop at of what was like a rest stop with a public bathroom and a couple small grocery stores. The driver used his wrenches on the bus and I had a popsicle. It is still very humid and hot even in the mountains.

There was also very good news at this stop. I found Coca Cola Light, the closest thing to diet I had seen in a store since we arrived in China. At the hotel in Beijing you can get a glass for about $7 U.S., cooled, but not cold. This was in a refrigerated case and really hit the spot.

I would insert a hyperlink for Zhangjiakou, but there is no Internet service so I will need to wait until I get back to Beijing in three days to post. Not only is there no Internet, but the mobile phone service has been turned off. There are many disgruntled members in our group, upset with the accommodations and the lack of this service. We are told that the local dignitaries supporting us are negotiating with the government to get it turned back on.

On the bus trip we were told that the hotel was not like the Five Star Beijing hotel, it was more like a four star. Well, in the U.S. it might not qualify for any stars. Peeling wall paper, torn curtains, one English speaking TV station (CCTV), worn/torn dirty carpeting, and cigarette smoke and burns. Smoking is much more prevalent here than I saw in Beijing, including being on a slow elevator with someone smoking. Some of the ladies from the New York/New Jersey area are particularly upset with these accommodations. Though of lower quality, the room may have actually been cleaner than my room in Beijing.

The first thing upon arrival was another banquet that included 26 courses. Thankfully, each course is small, but it still adds up. I can feel my waist expanding and my clothes tightening up. I tried EVERYTHING, including fish maw in a handless cup, fish balls and egg white, conch, and even “delicious” donkey meat. It wasn’t bad except there was more than meat on the plate, as at least two organs from some part of the donkey were also on the plate. Suffice it to say, I can say I tasted donkey meat, but it was one plate that I did not finish. What strikes me most about the food is that it is not spicy often to the point of being bland. The dishes with a sauce are usually the best, with any of the seafood dishes being at the top of my list. And yes, there was toast after toast with some type of hard liquor and wine always in your glass. I made it through with no problems, though there are some odd tastes in my mouth now as I find myself with some minor burps. Thank goodness for another coke light.

I forgot to share the other thing that is causing some to be upset: We have a 10:00 p.m. curfew. Yes, in our room by 10. We are told that there is not much to do In Zhangjiakou after this time. Looking out my window would suggest otherwise as there are many cars and people moving on the streets. Through all this, the people that we meet continue to amaze me. They are courteous and eager to please and support us. The hotel staff, most of whom do not speak English, are very helpful. I got a half roll of toilet paper and batteries for the remote control delivered using sign language, gestures and a few words.

Tomorrow we finally start the school visitations. Things have changed to include only two visits instead of four. I am randomly scheduled tomorrow for a technical school so I am trying to find someone to switch with me so I can visit an elementary school, the only other choice.

What I am learning is that this trip is much more about promoting Hanban’s language program to expand the number of schools in our country teaching Chinese language and culture. It is more about experiencing Chinese culture through visiting prominent sites and natural areas than visiting the schools. Though I am enjoying and learning thus far, I was hoping to experience more of the schools than we will have the opportunity to do. I am also intrigued and eager to learn more about the language program and ability through Hanban to implement it with exchange teachers. A number of the districts here already are using the program and give it good ratings, both the teachers and the program they teach.

I am hopeful that we will have phone service tomorrow so that I can get something on my blog about the lack of Internet; and if there is a way to use my phone I have no clue or the time to learn it here. Our days are packed with little opportunity for reflection, reading, or relaxation. It’s 11:30 pm and I’m ready to call it a day.

NEWS ALERT: At midnight I had a knock on my door from a member of our team. He informed me that we would be leaving in the morning after the first school visit. It seems like I actually have one of the better, cleaner rooms, others are in much worse shape than mine. Hanban did not actually visit the hotel because we were moved from the place they planned for us when a high-ranking member of the government decided to visit that city at the same time. And, the real reason for the curfew is that it would not be safe for us to be on the streets in the evening.

This means we get to bus back to Beijing in the morning (3.5 hours) and then go to a city in southern Hebei Province that could be another 3+ hours on the bus. This is one more chapter in my adventure. I am meeting people from my country and from China and acquiring new information that is allowing me to be reflective about our district’s journey from an entirely new context.

My main concern continues to be the lack of access to schools and the people in them, both kids and adults. Because we are out in the province away from Beijing I am also concerned that there will not be student access to technology. The packet that we have prepared to introduce ourselves and to invite collaboration is around becoming e-pals. I will know more about this after the school visit this morning.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Great sights but a very long day

It was truly an eventful day with very little down time. I walked back from the Great Hall of the People and it’s already 11:15 p.m. so I’m going to make this a short post and catch up another time. Too tired to download any pictures.

In order, we visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, The Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, and finally the banquet at the Great Hall. Hanban sponsors the trip with the College Board sponsoring on the U.S. side.

The sights were unbelievable with the mix of old in the Forbidden City with the new and modern construction. The city is very clean with no graffiti to be seen and very little litter, which gets picked up quickly, sort of like Disneyland. The counter to this is the number of street hawkers trying to sell everything from Mao watches to kites.

Tomorrow is a lecture at Beijing University followed by bus travel to Hebei Province to visit schools for the next three days. With another reception in the evening I don’t know if I’ll get much time to post.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On the ground, but unplugged . . .

I’m still on the plane, but I thought I’d get a few sentences done before we land. We went over the polar region and then Russia before entering Mongolia and China. Though I watched four movies I also had a window seat to see unbelievable differences in terrain; snow and ice covered flat lands, mountain ranges, lowlands, deserts, forests, and lush farmlands. There were multiple sources of water including oceans, rivers, lakes, and also vast expanses with no sign of human habitation. We live in a truly diverse and beautiful world and I am about to experience even more when I land.

I just completed the paper work about my health and any exposure to the flu in the last seven days. After departing the plane we go through a machine that takes your temperature. If you have any sign of fever they quarantine you and the people in the three rows around you. Though I don’t feel sick, thinking about causing this kind of trouble for those around me is making me nervous.

I don’t want this to read like a diary entry (WOW, there is the Great Wall!) or documentary of my experiences so I think I’ll wait for something of more importance.

We are at the Beijing Hotel, the place where the Olympic Committee and their families stayed. Our guide wanted to make sure that we knew it was a five star hotel. Really nice except that the beds are a little hard and short, obviously that won’t be a problem for me. It’s about 5:00 pm on the 23rd here with dinner at 6. At home it is about 2:00 am. I’ve been up now for about 22 hours since I slept very little on the plane. As soon as I figure out how to get Internet access I hope to send this, eat, and try to sleep.

We start the day tomorrow with a visit to the Forbidden City followed by a conference on Chinese teaching and language instruction. I get to suit up for the conference because it is followed by the welcoming banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

Note: Blogger must be blocked from use in English in China – a technician tried to help me to no avail for an hour. I am e-mailing and asking Kevin to post for me.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'm on my way . . .

My adventure has started. I flew to Newark today to catch the flight to China tomorrow. Late out of Seattle, circled over the Newark airport touching down in overcast skies. The search for the shuttle to the hotel was an adventure in itself. By the time we reached the hotel the skies had opened up and the wind was howling. It brought back memories of the storm in Orlando where it dumped 12+ inches of rain in two days.

Sounds like a not so inspiring start, but I am excited about tomorrow and the opportunity in front of me. I will post as often as I can from China.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Getting ready leads to stress . . .

China is right around the corner and I am struggling to “feel” good about my preparation. This will be a different post for me, sharing my struggles with getting ready, so if this personal stuff is not what you are expecting I apologize.

I usually travel on vacation with shorts, tennis shoes, t-shirts, and a couple shirts with collars. This is much different and more difficult to prepare for. Formal dinners (4) with suits being the required dress means I need to bring at least 2 plus shirts and ties. School visits being business casual means shirts with collars and long pants for four days. Site seeing is more casual, but more clothes. At first I was told I needed to keep this to a maximum of 42 pounds including gifts and all the other stuff one needs for hygiene purposes. Yesterday I found out I could go to 50 pounds since we are bussing to the region where we visit schools instead of flying. Eight pounds doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is helpful.

Let’s see, what else:

Need to buy a new piece of luggage that holds suits and almost all the other clothes.

Call the credit card company to inform them I will be in China.

Get traveller's checks.

Check with the doctor and get verification for my prescriptions.

Print multiple copies of passport first page.

Get Skype organized for communicating with family and work.

The list seems to drag on. I have found that being a last minute planner and doer related to travel is not what one should do the first time to China. I have gained much respect for those that do international travel. Of course, the last week of the student year is not exactly the best time to make this trip, but when you aren’t paying, it’s best to grin and bear it.

So Sunday is departure and I think today was the last shopping (short sleeve dress shirts and a couple ties, you can never have too many ties) because I’m tired of it. Tomorrow, I need to finish evaluations, attend Rotary, prepare for Tuesday’s board meeting, visit the bank, get home early enough to mow and try to remember what I have forgotten to do. That will not be easy as I have information in multiple places. I should have asked Linda to help so I could feel better and my head would hurt less. Too late now.

If everything works correctly, I will try to post from China. It will be fun to share the adventure as I try to form partnerships with multiple schools. Excited about the trip, but concerned with my preparation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Can money buy national standards?

The national standards movement just received a $350 million infusion from Duncan and the education department. The interesting part is that the money is not to develop the standards, but to develop the tests used to measure student achievement against the standards. He believes that developing the standards will be a relatively minor expense compared to creating the assessments. In his words:

"Having real high standards is important, but behind that, I think in this country we have too many bad tests," Duncan said. "If we're going to have world-class international standards, we need to have world-class evaluations behind them."

I can't argue with this as he is looking at assessments that measure whether students are mastering complex materials and can apply them in ways that show they are ready for post high school learning and work. I don't know if these assessments are what we are looking at in OSPI's new system, but they sound different. Could be interesting as there are only four states that have not signed on to this national standards movement. There is much yet to do, but with each new support they inch closer to reality.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reflecting at the end of a student year . . .

The last week for students usually finds me meeting my statutory requirement to “evaluate” building level and district level administrators. This means that I meet with them and provide them with both a summary of what I have observed over the year and share a focus for the following year. It is also a time of reflection my part. What could I have done that would have had greater influence on our journey? How have I supported this individual on their PLC and supervisory journey? What went well? What ladder might I have about this person and what assumptions am I making that result in this ladder? These are some of the questions that place me in the position of assessing my work and the influence that I have on the work of our school system.

From experience, I don’t believe that the words that I place on paper have much influence on behavior. In fact, when I ask about the focus identified in the previous spring there are many times, if not most, when the individual struggles to remember. This is both a reflection on my supervision during the year and lack of creative tension around the focus. A “meaty” focus must bring with it some tension, common understanding, benchmarks to identify progress, and conversation over time. This is an area that needs attention on my part.

I do believe, however, that I have influence in meetings with these individuals through the questions that I ask and through the feedback that I share. I can identify changes in practice at the building and system level that are the result of learning opportunities that we have developed to support our administrators over time. I strive to place administrators in situations where they must reflect on their assumptions, share their private thoughts, and continue to grow and learn.

I have much room to grow as a supervisor and I know that I need to become more visible where they do their work to increase my effectiveness. With teacher leadership training over the last few years I have lost some of this focus. The true assessment of my effectiveness, however, would need to come from one of those that I have the honor to supervise. Perhaps one of them might share their thoughts in a comment to this post.

How about you? At the end of a year what do you reflect upon and how do you measure your success?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thank you, Barry . . .

Last night was graduation, one of those events that mark the end of another school year. Terry and staff did another wonderful job to make this a memorable evening for the graduates and their family and friends. It was also an opportunity for Barry Fountain to address the graduates one last time as he was elected by the seniors to be the staff speaker. In his usual creative and energetic way he did not disappoint. He gave an inspiring talk; shared personal experiences, used visuals, engaged the students, and left them with a message of hope through identifying and pursuing their aspirations.

Barry has for many years been an inspiration to hundreds of young people who have had the privilege of being in his classroom. I believe that in his career students have come to see him as one of the most respected teachers in the history of Tahoma High School. He is and has been a Classroom 10 thinker and doer. His knowledge, skills, energy, and enthusiasm for our profession and for young people will be missed. I don’t know that one person can replace this combination of gifts that he has shared with us.

Check out this Facebook page that was created by Chanse Pierson for the 590 current and past students to share their thoughts of Barry the teacher and the person.

THANK YOU Barry for being an inspiration to me that we can influence the lives of young people in positive ways and that Classroom 10 can be a powerful vehicle to attach students to learning in our classrooms.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A trip too good to pass up . . .

Why the interest in English and China? Because two weeks from tomorrow I will be on my way to China as part of a College Board group sponsored by Hanban. How did this happen?

Last fall I was invited to become a member of the National Superintendents Roundtable. Normally I wouldn’t consider joining an organization such as this, but because the invitation was a result of my engagement in the SOL conference and its connection to Peter Senge’s work I made the decision to accept.
One of the first communications I received after joining was information on the Roundtable’s annual conference and an invitation to apply for a trip to China. Given our financial situation, going to the conference was not something I was planning to do and based upon other trips to China I had seen, the cost would be prohibitive even in a good budget year. But, because of the Roundtable’s relationship with the College Board the possibility was one I found difficult to not pursue.

The trip is one full week in China with the total cost to each participant being only $900. Hanban picks up the remainder of the cost including all travel, lodging, and meals. The trip includes three days of visiting schools in Heibei Province sandwiched between meetings and sightseeing in Beijing. The only problem thus far is that I must first fly to Newark, N.J. and return home through Newark to take advantage of Hanban paying for the flights. With the flight times it also meant needing to spend the night in Newark on both ends. Even with the fourteen hour flight from Newark to Beijing I decided that it was still too good to pass up so I picked up these extra costs.

My goal is to establish relationships with schools that want to engage with students and teachers from Tahoma. I’ll share more of the details and planning as the departure date gets closer.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Here is a short video (4:35) of a TedTalk by Jay Walker on mania, specifically the world’s mania around learning English with a focus on China. He sees it as a turning point with English representing hope for a better future and the opportunity for people from around the world to engage in problem solving.

Ok, so what? This is of interest to me for a variety of reasons that I will begin to share in my next post.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Some follow-up to earlier posts . . .

More on merit pay for teachers - a new study suggesting that there are issues that policy makers are not considering as they promote this model. The report identified in Education Week suggests that those touting merit pay in the private sector are not aware of the scope of it's use or the negative consequences that emerge. For example:

In education, though, Mr. Rothstein maintains "most policymakers who now promote performance incentives and accountability, and scholars who analyze them, seem mostly oblivious to the extensive literature in economics and management theory documenting the inevitable corruption of quantitative indicators and the perverse consequences of performance incentives that rely on such indicators."

Or, a statement that certainly is true in the teaching profession. "A general lesson from this part of the economy is that when you have jobs where it’s very hard to identify all the dimensions of productivity, and when it’s hard to measure all the individual contributions of productivity, formulaic pay plans tend to be suspect and to do more harm than good," said Mr. Heywood."

As before I encourage you to read the comments where one person suggests that EPI, the organization supporting the study is a pro-union think tank. The fun never ends.

More developments on the national standards watch. As reported in the Washington Post, the governor's in 46 of the states have signed on to draft common reading and math standards, K-12. Once complete, states would have autonomy to decide whether or not to adopt the standards. Why agree to the process as our governor has if there isn't the intent to sign on when complete?

Our Ed. Secretary describes this development in this way. "This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "A lot of hard work is ahead of us. But this is a huge step in a direction that would have been unimaginable just a year or two ago." "This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "A lot of hard work is ahead of us. But this is a huge step in a direction that would have been unimaginable just a year or two ago."

This is certainly a different direction than local control. Is it needed?