Saturday, December 15, 2018

Cockney in the country

I was born in London and spent my first 18 years living in the "big city" and then, when I went off to university, chose to study at the "northern powerhouse" of Leeds.  Most of my life I've lived in cities - I've enjoyed them for the culture, the busyness - the fact that there is always something going on, always life.  London, Leeds, Miami, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Mumbai ... and now Sutton in the Isle.  When I decided to move back to the UK to care for my mother I had no plans of living in the countryside; I started looking for places to live in nearby towns - but most were above my budget.  I ended up finding a country cottage, and gradually things started to fall into place.  Since August I have been forced to learn many new things - how to grow vegetables, how to cook them - and to relearn things I hadn't done for years such as driving, lighting a wood fire and cleaning the house!

It's very dark here and quiet at night.  I thought I'd be uneasy with that, but actually I have found that I sleep much better - in particular not having to wake up before 6am for work.  I tend to wake up when it gets light - and now that it's winter here that is actually quite late.

However I do miss work - or more to the point I miss a regular income.  For 37 years I knew the date that my monthly salary would arrive in my bank.  Now it's all very hit and miss.  I've done some online workshops, some face-to-face ones, some school visits and so on.  For each of these it seems I have to wait ages to be paid - and that's a worry, because the bills keep on coming at regular times every month.  Another thing I find I'm having to do is to "drum up custom" for months in advance.  I've never been good a blowing my own trumpet, at marketing myself, but I know that this is a skill I need to learn.  I expected the first year of self-employment as a consultant would be tough - but I never expected it to be this tough: to be at the point where I've had to opt to have a tooth out because I cannot afford a root canal, for example.  But I do try to do small things that make a difference - for example I always have fresh flowers on the table and can make the same old sweaters look a bit different with colourful scarves and cheap jewellery.  My "office" is now outside in the garden and it's great to work to the sound of birdsong.

I also miss a ready-made social life.  In international schools overseas you are surrounded by people in a similar situation to yourself - and even when things are tough (as they were in my first few years in India) there are people sharing that toughness with you.  Now I've moved to a village where I know nobody - where friendship groups have already been established for years (decades!) and - let's be honest - my world views are completely different from the views of the 97% of local residents who were born and brought up here.  It's hard to fit in.  I've joined a yoga class and a walking group, but have yet to meet many people of my own age group and life experience, and people who enjoy similar (cultural) things that I do.  But there is stuff going on.  I've visited local artists in their homes and studios, been to a jazz evening, even been to the local church to sing some Christmas carols.  In the summer there was a picnic in the park with fireworks and some heavy metal bands.  You just have to work harder to find these things and you often have to go to them by yourself (which has never really been a problem for me as I've travelled a lot by myself and generally people do talk to you if you are by yourself there).

It's not all doom and gloom.  It's great that I can see and support mum several days a week.  London is only an hour away on the train - and both my children now live there.  I see much more of family than ever before, even though I see much less of friends.  And I've done a huge amount of online workshops - which has been my lifeline as I talk with educators around the world every day.  In July I had the time to write a book - which has now been published.  I could never have found the time for that if I'd been in full time work.

But as this year comes to an end I know it's time to take stock.  It has been good to have so much time, but I now need to start working towards a sustainable income.  Basically I need to find a job that gives me regular money each month - at least enough to pay the bills, buy food and put petrol in the car, and at the same time gives me some time to still support mum.  I've thought about supply teaching - but that hasn't seemed to work out.  I've thought about online teaching or online recruitment - maybe there is still something there.  I've thought about trying to do more IB workshops and consultancies.  I've thought about writing another book.

There are some hard lessons I've learned as well.  I've learned that some people that I thought were trustworthy really are not.  In fact I've been treated really disrespectfully and unprofessionally by people who should definitely have known better.  I've had to learn to forgive people who don't even want to be forgiven - because I have to move on and not drag bitterness with me.

In general 2018 has been a tough year for me, and I'm glad it's coming to an end.  I'm hoping that 2019 will be a better year, and that I will continue to learn and to grow and to be the best person I can be, and that I will continue to share that growth with others.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Technology and sleep

When I lived in Mumbai I was in a book club, and one of the group was our school's nurse.  She recommended we read the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.  Even though I left the school, I decided I'd read the book anyway and I'm glad I did - it was fascinating.  In particular I was interested in the research around how technology impacts sleep.   All too often I've heard parents and colleagues complain that technology in the bedrooms is robbing us of our sleep - and in fact I've always told parents to keep students' devices out of their children's bedrooms at night.  There's plenty of evidence about the harmful effects of LED-emitting devices - however, as Matthew Walker points out, there's no putting the technological genie back into the bottle, so what we need to do is find ways to use technology to our advantage.

One such use of technology might be to track our sleep and circadian rhythms.  Walker argues that when we can do this accurately we can also use technology to monitor our networked devices such as thermostats and lighting to give us the optimal conditions for sleep.  We could even programme in a natural lull and rise in temperature across the night that is in harmony with our body's rhythm.

A second interesting use of technology could be to use it with our electric lights.  Many of us are overexposed to blue-dominant LED light in the evening, which suppresses melatonin and delays our feelings of sleepiness.  Walker argues that we could soon be at the point where we can engineer LED bulbs with filters that can vary the wavelength of light they emit - enabling us to use warm yellow colours in the evening, which are less harmful to the body's melatonin production.  These bulbs could be paired with individuals' sleep trackers so that over the course of an evening they could gradually lessen the blue light in the home as the evening progresses, or even as someone moves from room to room.  In the morning the opposite can happen - with blue light being emitted to shut off the melatonin and help us to wake up faster and more alert.  The idea is that this technology could also be useful in helping to overcome jetlag, for example, and even to help in cars by emitting blue light during the morning commute, since the highest drowsy-driving accidents occur in the early mornings.

Like everything, technology has its opportunities and challenges.  The impact of technology on sleep has been well documented - perhaps now it's time for us to take back the control to ensure that technology can be proactively used for good.

Photo Credit: Jason-Morrison Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sleep and school start times

Since moving back to the UK I've been living in a village.  It's stating the obvious, I think, to say that village life is very different from living in Mumbai, a city of 22 million people.  For me one of the biggest differences I've noticed is in the way I sleep.  During my 6 years in India I don't think I slept very well.  For the first 3 years I lived in an extremely noisy neighbourhood, and even when the people were not noisy there was always the street dogs that would fight at night and keep me awake.  As well as this I found it was often quite light at night - and of course there was the very early morning alarm clock that got me up for work - my start time was 7.40 am.

Now that I'm not working in a school my sleep is much more under my control.  I go to bed when I feel tired, and I wake up without an alarm.  In addition it is very dark and very quiet.  My body and general feeling of wellbeing has certainly improved with better quality sleep, and it's got me thinking about how sleep, or a lack of it, impacts our students - and what we can do about it.

I was recently reading that more than 80% of high schools in the USA start before 8.15 am - and in fact almost 50% of those start before 7.20 am (which was actually my start time when I worked in Thailand).  Because many students get the bus to school, pick ups from home can start as early as 5.45 am, meaning that many students are getting up at around 5.15 am, five days a week for years on end, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation for most adolescents, and associated mental health issues that include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and suicide.   Digging a little deeper into this, the real problem seems to be a lack of REM sleep (the sleep we experience in the final hours of our sleep) that is responsible for our stable or unstable mental states.  While 100 years ago students woke up without an alarm clock for a school that started at 9 am, now almost no-one does.

Here's the interesting thing:  studies have shown that no matter what age, the longer a child sleeps the more intellectual gifted they are (Genetic Studies of Genius, Terman).  It seems that Terman believed that the movement towards an earlier and earlier school start is damaging the intellectual growth of students.  Ironically, as the USA pushes school start times earlier and earlier, in Europe the opposite has happened.

Japanese studies have also linked sleep to memory - showing that delaying school start times can be transformative.  In the USA a test was done in Edina, Minnesota when school start times were shifted an hour later (to 8.30 from 7.25).  Before the shift, SAT average scores were 605.  After the shift, these rose to 761.  Similar results were observed for Math SAT scores: from 683 to 739.  These studies indicate that allowing students more sleep is beneficial.

These results are even more extreme when considering socio-economic status.  Low income families are less likely to be taken to school in a car (often because many of these parents need to get themselves to work) and therefore are more likely to travel on a school bus.  For those children they have to wake up earlier than those driven by their parents, and so disadvantaged children become more disadvantaged as they routinely obtain less sleep than children from more affluent families.

Another interesting by-product of a later school start time is a later finishing time.  This is also seen as beneficial as it protects teenagers from the "danger window" of 3.00 - 6.00 pm when schools have finished but parents have not yet returned home - an unsupervised and vulnerable period of time for involvement in crime and alcohol abuse.  A later school start time reduces this window and therefore also reduces the potential for these outcomes.

Here's another interesting study:  In Minnesota when school times were pushed from a 7.30 start to an 8.00 am start, there was a 60% reduction in traffic accidents in drivers aged 16 - 18.  In Wyoming a shift in start times from 7.35 to 8.55 am resulted in a 70% reduction in traffic accidents in 16 - 18 year old drivers.

There are also links between sleep deficiency and ADHD, in fact many of the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of ADHD are exactly those caused by a lack of sleep.  Unfortunately, drugs such as Ritalin which are prescribed for ADHD are drugs that prevent sleep - which may exacerbate the issue.

Now here's my question (since this is a blog about technology and education):  is technology robbing us of sleep - or can technology help us to track our sleep and then intervene so that we get more benefit from sleep, and then less of a negative impact on our brain's ability to study.  Let's see if I can answer that question in my next blog post.

All studies mentioned in this post are from the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Building virtual bridges and windows to the world

“When I die, you need to pick up my gun and keep fighting." These were the last words spoken by Christoper Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya who was murdered on September 11th, 2012 during a 13-hour terror attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi Libya.   Christopher Stevens was known for his fascination of other cultures and his goodwill towards others.  As a student he studied abroad in Spain and Italy and later joined the Peace Corps and worked in Morocco.  As a diplomat he spent the majority of his career in North Africa and the Middle East dedicating himself to building understanding between people from different countries.  Following his death, the Steven's Institute was set up in partnership with his family.  The aim of this organisation is to give young people the international exchange experiences that Stevens had, which helped shape him into the person he became, and this is done through virtual exchanges to build global competences and mutual understandings between young people in the Middle East and North Africa and others of a similar age in the USA.

Person-to-person exchanges change lives, create opportunities and build lifelong mutual understanding and respect. But such programs, as vital and transformative as they are, reach only thousands. Less than 1% of young people ever get the opportunity to study abroad - so virtual exchanges are one way of expanding that number.  Virtual exchanges can reach millions and create windows to the world for every student. Today, technology has a huge role to play in enabling virtual exchanges to take place, so that life-changing, cross-cultural experiences can be made available to a large number of young people.  The Initiative has partnered with Twitter and Vidyo to facilitate these exchanges.  Over the past two years, awards have been made to 22 organisations that have reached over 28,000 young people in the USA and in 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Henry Shepherd, the Assistant Director, to ask if I was interested in getting involved in reading and assessing application proposals for this year's round of grants.  Henry told me he'd found me on Twitter and had reached out because of my participation in online discussions about international education.  After a Skype chat, and then a webinar about how to actually rank the applications, I was all set.  I've been given 13 proposals to read, and to be honest it has been both a humbling and uplifting experience.   The priority topics are technology and computing, world affairs and global studies, business and entrepreneurship and language learning and practice.  The Stevens Initiative puts emphasis on reaching young people whose access to exchange programmes has been limited. Virtual exchanges can give young people new opportunities to gain critical skills and see the world from new perspectives even if they are not able to participate in an in-person exchange.  The aim is to address the needs of women and girls, underserved youth, refugees, people with disabilities and minority groups.

Since being sent the applications last week I've managed to read through a couple each day. I've been impressed by how many of these proposals aim to give young people a better understanding of global issues and how the issues in their own communities are part of a global context, while at the same time building practical skills of the participants.

Ambassador Stevens might not have meant this when he urged those in the consulate to keep fighting. However I think he would have been proud of what has happened since his death, and how the Stevens Initiative has been established to work towards a better and more peaceful world through empowering young people to participate in activities and experiences that will give them long-lasting skills and knowledge to help them understand global issues through the eyes of the participants in the other countries.   

One of my biggest fears on my return to the UK this summer was that I would not "fit in". I'd become worried by conversations I'd overheard on buses, in pubs and at bus stops about immigrants in the UK. I wondered where these intolerant attitudes had come from . Therefore, in my own small way, I'm delighted to be part of the fight against bigotry, xenophobia and closed-mindedness. It has been a joy to be part of an initiative that aims to give young people the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to prosper in an interconnected world.
Photo Credit: Wiertz S├ębastien Flickr via Compfight cc

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Fit and healthy - part 2

In January this year I wrote a post about several apps I've been trying out that are focused on health and fitness.  Now as it turns out I was in the pharmacy yesterday and I came across a leaflet called 10 Steps to an Active You.  This leaflet recommended an app called Active 10 which monitors you for 10 minutes of brisk walking (basically the aim is to get your blood pumping and improve your mood).  Apparently just 10 minutes of brisk walking can improve your health straight away - though you need to do 15 sessions of these a week since doctors recommend you are active for 150 minutes a week to reduce your risk of long-term health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia and cancer.  Of course the good thing about walking is that you can do it anytime without the need for any equipment at all.

The idea behind the Active 10 app is simply to keep you motivated, with the idea of working up to 30 minutes (three Active 10s) each day.  You set your own goals and you increase or decrease them when you want. The app monitors your progress over 7 days and over 30 days.  Your progress shows up on various screens, and you can see both how long you have walked for in minutes and then how much of that was brisk walking.

I used this app yesterday and today and I did find it motivating.  Yesterday I started out with a goal of one Active 10 in the evening, but as I was walking I increased it to two.  This morning having completed two Active 10s, I then changed the goal to three.

There's an Active 10 website as well.  This contains more information and also others apps that are made by the same developers, one of which I have used before as a podcast and which I know has been successful in getting millions of people running worldwide.  I already monitor the number of steps I walk as well as the distance I walk and I wondered whether it was possible to use all 3 apps in combination.  I therefore went and downloaded the Couch to 5K app as well.

This app is sponsored by the NHS and the BBC.  It's designed for beginners to build up to running for 30 minutes without stopping.  This might or might not be 5k depending on how fast you run of course.  The programme is a 9-week plan aimed at running three times a week with rest day between each run, though you can repeat weeks if you don't feel you are physically fit to move onto the next one.

With this app you start off by choosing your trainer.  There are five to
choose from.  Next you will see the wheel which shows you the day's running schedule.  This wheel also displays a countdown timer so you can see how much of each section - walk or run - you still have to do.  You can use this app in conjunction with your own music, and interestingly, there is a bell that rings when you are half way through your run so that if you are running in one direction rather than a circular route you will know it's time to turn round and run back.

So this morning I set off on a walk/run with all 3 apps monitoring my progress.  According to the Steps app I spent 51 minutes walking and running 4.5 km - and did about 60% of my daily target of 10,000 steps.  The Active 10 shows I managed to achieve today's goal of three Active 10s, and that I walked for a total of 54 minutes, of which 44 were brisk.  The Couch to 5K app shows I completed Run 1 of Week 1, but no further information, though since I know the yellow sections on the app are the running sections I can work out that I ran for 8 minutes as today's schedule was "run for 60 seconds, walk for 90 seconds".

In general I feel all these apps could be very helpful in motivating someone and keeping them exercising - check back in another 9 weeks to see if I've managed to get myself to 5K and if technology really can help people to get fit and transform their health.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Coaching your colleagues - part 2

About a month ago I announced my intention of using the month of July to write a book on coaching.  I'm happy to say that last week I managed to write 2 chapters of this book - which focused on the benefits of coaching and what coaches do.  This week I'm going to start on Chapter 3 which is about trust and how that is the cornerstone of building capacity in teachers.  As mentioned previously as well, I'm spending the summer reading Peer Coaching by Pam Robbins.  As I was pulling my thoughts about trusting relationships together, I thought I'd dip into her book and see what she had to say.  Here is how she starts:
Day in and day out, dedicated teaches work tirelessly in individual classrooms ... More often than not their students represent a wide array of learning differences in terms of skills content knowledge, background experiences, interests, parental support, learning challenges, and self confidence.  They come from a variety of cultures and consequently view and speak about the world differently .... Isolated in their classrooms, teachers often wonder, Did I use the best lesson strategy today to teach this standards?  How would my colleague across the hall do it?
Peer coaching seems to address the very same issues that I've been helping our coaches to address at ASB, in a model that I've called Coaching your Colleagues.  Schools around the world are bombarded with the latest and greatest initiatives that promise to enhance learning and teaching.  At the same time, teachers are facing new ways of evaluating their performance and the word "accountability" is one that is frequently heard.

In our PD 3.0 task force on R&D some years ago we looked at what new models of professional learning could look like.  We felt that coaching was the way forward.  As Robbins writes, "it fosters meaningful, personalized, professional growth opportunities for staff; increases the influence of exemplary teaching; and magnifies the collective propensity of schools to be able to provide responsive, high-quality learning experiences to ensure that every student succeeds".

Robbins' model is one where colleagues work together.  In terms of Cognitive Coaching, most of these would not be classed as coaching, but instead as collaborating or consulting.  However here is the list of what Robbins means by peer coaching.  Colleagues:
  • reflect upon and analyze teaching practices and their consequences
  • develop and articulate curriculum
  • create informal assessments to measure student learning
  • implement new instructional strategies, including the integrated use of technology
  • plan lessons collaboratively
  • discuss student assessment data and plan for future learning experiences
  • expand, refine and build new skills
  • share ideas and resources
  • teach one another
  • conduct classroom research
  • solve classroom problems or address workplace challenges
  • examine and study student learning with the goal of improving professional practice to maximize student success.
Just like other forms of coaching, peer coaching has been seen to be effective in augmenting the availability of feedback to teachers, increasing their problem-solving capabilities, building capacity, planning instructional time, expanding the integration of technology, designing more challenging student work, and personalising professional learning.  And just like other forms of coaching, trust has to be there at the start of the process.  Robbins writes that a lack of trust is often the reason why coaching fails to change teacher practices.  While many coaches have exceptional content knowledge, they are not taking the time to focus on building relationships and trust, and hence their impact is limited.  In fact some teachers in these situations will remain skeptical of coaching and see it just as another form of teacher evaluation. She writes:
Peer Coaching activities change in form and structure as relationships among colleagues grow more trusting and comfortable .... if trust is just beginning to develop, staff members may initially prefer to work collegially ... Next as trust develops professional colleagues may draw from these prior learning experiences and create lessons together ... Finally teachers may form pairs or trios so that one teacher can teach the lesson they helped develop, while the  others observe.  Following the lesson, the teacher and observers may reflect and analyze what led to desirable student performance and what they might do differently.
The Peer Coaching model, therefore is made up of two distinct parts:

  1. Collaborative work to increase the capacity of teachers to promote learning
  2. Formal coaching that includes a pre-conference, an observation and a post-conference. 
I was interested to read about how technology can be seen as both a benefit and a deterrent to collaboration.  Often, as teachers may lack collaborative planning time, or in situations where there is no common meeting area, combined with a chronic shortage of time, teachers may simply rely on email instead of face-to-face interactions.  However technology can also help - in situations where it is just not practical to observe another class, digital recordings can open up the classrooms, and tools such as Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts can allow colleagues to meet at a time and place that works for everyone.  But let's not think technology is the answer to everything!  Coaching requires both time and money for the trainings and time (which may include money if substitutes have to be employed) for the observations and conferencing.

I can't stress strongly enough how coaching needs to be totally separate from evaluation.  Principals need to be absolutely clear about that - it is possible for a school principal to coach, but he or she needs to be crystal clear about which role they are in.  And for coaching to be supported in a school, a principal needs to go further than just lip-service.  He or she needs to be substituting for teachers so that they can coach their peers, coordinating schedules for coaching interactions, and sharing research about coaching.

At ASB we have seen our tech coaches as being leaders - and we have tried to distribute the leadership by ensuring that teachers don't take on too much - for example not being a team leader as well as a coach.  Having coaches within the teams that they are already working in does remove the stigma of supervision and evaluation from the process, and contributes more to teams seeing themselves as communities of learners.

Photo Credit: Benson Kua Flickr via Compfight cc