The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels adding them to the pile of shoes at the front of the brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

No, I have never been to Vietnam before or to this particular school, but my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity in our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • Adolescents are awkward in a way I find deeply endearing.
  • You can see the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale special kind of tired that teachers wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did learn a few phrases in Vietnamese, more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take any spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW

8,124 miles, Learning in a Global World

Hanoi Journals

Last week was our Thanksgiving holiday. I spent it with my extended family including my maternal grandmother. We looked at photos from her childhood: small black and white images of the horses her family used to plow the fields, a favorite farm dog, a small country house with a roof that let in snow in the winter, meaning that sometimes my grandmother and her siblings would wake covered in white flakes. 

Yesterday, I boarded a plane for Hanoi. It is 8,124 miles from my hometown to the capital of Vietnam. This is the furthest I have ever traveled. Along the way, I messaged my family from the airplane. My eight-year-old daughter tracked my flight on her iPad.

What does it mean to teach and learn in this global moment? What kind of world are we preparing our students to lead? 

When we arrived in the city, a friend picked us up and drove us to our hotel. It was late at night. Along the way she told us stories about the city, mixing legend (dragons and fairies) with practical (a new bridge built to streamline airport traffic). She pointed out a river, telling us this is where Hanoi, which means inside of the river, gets its name. We drove by the famous miles-long mural, an art installation to celebrate the 1,000 year anniversary of Vietnam’s independence.  It sparkled even in the dark. 

I wake up my first morning in Hanoi still foggy from travel. I step outside with a cup of coffee and watch the motorbikes whiz past as the city wakes up. I think about the students and teachers we get to work and learn with in this city. Many have  already visited us on campus, what a gift to reciprocate and see them here in their hometown. These young people amaze me, not only for their ability to study in both Vietnamese and English, but also for the radical hope they have for a different world.

This hope is a palpable constant in classrooms I’ve visited around the world. 

This morning, I wonder about my Vietnamese students. What stories do their grandparents and great-grandparents tell them about childhood? What complex memories do the black and white photographs from their basements hold?  I know history bears many weights. And yet, when we meet our friends here, they embrace me. When I great our students, they light up. 

I sip my coffee, watching the light change from dawn to day across the narrow streets in the old quarter, I think of our collective ability to move forward. I think of the new classrooms, questions, and projects our students are creating.  Our young people seem to approach the world as if it were an abstract origami project. They fold history, ingenuity, and grace together, offering us something that is both familiar and also completely brand new. 

Warmly, Dr. KFW

P.S. Check back soon for more updates from our travels.

On Writing Academic Papers

Dear Promising Undergraduate Scholar,

I recently found an old paper I’d written that made me think of you. At the time I wrote it I was teaching at high school classes and had just started my doc program. My professor asked me to write about academic writing. My response was a little cheeky, which is no surprise to those of you who know me. It began: 

I teach my students the five-paragraph essay so that they can rage against it. Formulas belong in math. Yet, as an emerging scholar, academic writing seems wrought with formulas. For me, writing is personal. I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. Yet, here in higher education the negotiation between the “creative” and the “scholarly” seems volatile. Since entering the Ph.D. program, I’ve already noticed some changes in my writing. Change can be hard. I recognize I am both learning a new genre of writing and writing for a new audience of readers. 

Now that I’m on the other side of my Ph.D., I work as a faculty member in the College of Education. In that capacity, I have the honor of teaching you and your peers.

I find you precocious, compassionate, engaged, and often ill-equipped to write academic papers. 

Much to my dismay many of you did not learn the five-paragraph essay, much less how to effectively rage against it. I’m here for you, just as I am for the students in my lecture classes. Below are some basic tips for starting to write in the ways your professors are most likely looking for.

When writing academic papers:

You need a thesis. A thesis:

  • responds directly to the prompt/question/assignment.
  • serves as a road map to your paper.
  • makes a compelling claim that others might disagree with.
  • is specific.
  • can be identified in a single sentence, usually at the end of the introduction.

You need evidence/support.

  • Cite your sources. If you didn’t think up an idea on your own, cite the scholar(s) who pointed you to that idea.
  • The Owl at Purdue is your friend.
  • Always include a reference page.
  • Cite readings from the class you are writing the paper for. Professors want to know you are doing the reading and thinking about it.

Organize your paper.

  • You simply must use paragraphs.
  • Your paragraphs should have topic sentences directly based off of your thesis statement.
  • You need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Please find more tips on this in the outline section below.

An outline is a beautiful thing. Here is one you can use.

I. Introduction
What is my hook?
What am I going to prove?
End with your thesis.

II. Body Paragraphs
Point 1 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 2 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 3 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Etc. (Note, each new point is a new paragraph)

III. Conclusion
What did I prove?
Why does it matter?

A few more tips for good measure.

  • Read your paper out loud slowly to catch any errors you may have missed. Do this even if it feels odd.
  • Title your paper.
  • Number your pages.
  • Make sure your name is on your paper.
  • If you are turning in a hard copy, for goodness sake, staple the pages together.

We still have more to learn together. College is such a wonderful time for learning. When we next chat, let’s visit about evaluating sources, showing instead of telling, and developing voice. However, it’s getting late and I have a feeling your paper is due tomorrow morning. Good luck, scholar. Take care of yourself. 

Encouragingly yours,

Dr. KFW

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Cultivating Curiosity in the Classroom

When she was six-years-old, we took our daughter to Point Reyes, CA. Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote about exploring tide pools along the shore.

She uses the base of my tripod to test for magnetic fields along the beach. With delight, she suspends purple particles above the shore, pretending to be an astronaut testing gravity on the moon.

At six-years-old she is curious about all the mysteries of the universe simultaneously: Want to hear something interesting? Ladybugs have four stages in their life cycle. When they are born they don’t look like ladybugs, they’re larva. Tell me about larva. Without taking a breath, she continues, Did you know giraffes have purple tongues?

How many galaxies do you think we’ll discover in my lifetime?  Mama, is it unusual to find whole sand dollars? Before I can respond to any of this, she beams and places a perfect sand dollar in my palm. I look up with surprise, she is already racing down the shore.

I share this story to illustrate a common truth: children love to wonder. They are constantly asking creative questions and imagining new possibilities. Children also need to wonder. Actually, we all do. How can we encourage young people to keep their sense of wonder as they move into middle school, high school, and then adulthood?

Skills You Can Cultivate

As the Director of Academic Affairs for a global school district, I visit with a lot of teachers and school leaders (both domestically and internationally). In these visits, educators share that they know critical thinking, problem-solving, reflection and leadership matter; however, they aren’t always sure how to cultivate those skills. In fact, sometimes they are not sure these are skills you can cultivate. They are and like most worthwhile skills, developing them requires intentionally and practice.

The educators I meet with are reading in the Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science standards. They see the call to encourage problem-solving and making interdisciplinary connections. They tell me these are good ideas and also that they feel pressure to implement them. However, they aren’t sure what that looks like in the classroom.  These teachers aren’t alone in their confusion.

Make no mistake, the teachers I meet with are among the most compassionate, creative, and driven educators I’ve ever known. They care deeply. They prepare. They have strategies to differentiate in reading, writing, and math. They also have resources, training, and curricula that help them in these subject areas. We don’t give teachers the same resources when it comes to the more ambiguous and just as essential skills of wonder, curiosity, and imagination.

A Familiar Best Practice

This is a gap we need to fill in our curricular cannon. In the meantime, I recommend we start with a familiar best practice—meeting students where they are. Encourage your students to ask big questions. Use these questions as a springboard to inquiry. When a six-year-old shares that she wants to know more about larva, launch a science investigation. When she asks a tricky question about galaxies, take the question to her peers, and work together to unpeel the layers and chase down answers.

Wonder (as both noun and verb) is an interdisciplinary framework that we can use to wed critical thinking with agency. Encourage the young people in your classrooms to imagine and to act on the questions and observations that lead us to both purpose and possibility. Don’t do this when you have time, once everything else has been finished after the standardized tests have been sent off. Instead, start here and then bring these student-centered inquiries back to your math texts, your science texts, your language arts texts.

Measure What Matters

Can we measure the outcome of this practice on standardized tests? Sure. Maybe. Is this the right question to ask? What about, can we measure the outcome of this practice on child development? Or can we measure the outcome of this practice on community engagement? Absolutely.

Our world needs thinkers and dreamers such as these. Best of all, they’re already there in our early elementary classrooms. For those of you working with young children, nurture their curiosity, encourage their imagination, invite wonder into your classroom. For those of you working with older children, remind them of the wonder they felt before we taught them there was one right answer or algorithm or rubric.  Ask them what they would want to learn if they could learn anything. Ask them what questions keep them up at night. Ask them what they think the most pressing issues are facing our world and how they would solve them. Meet these older students where they are, too. Connect their questions to the peer communities, work together to unpeel the layers of their inquiries, plan action projects and experiments to make learning meaningful.

Create space for students to play with possibility and chase down answers. Perhaps in doing so, we can cultivate continued curiosity about all the mysteries of the universe.

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW