‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ said Nietzsche. But why wait until calamity strikes?
2nd December 2016
It’s so refreshing to be in the classroom! The opportunity presented itself quite unexpectedly and, I must admit, I didn’t jump for joy or even think of it as an opportunity then. However, once in the classroom, it’s hard not to enjoy the vibes! Especially if you’re originally a high school teacher and, for a change, you get to teach Grade 6-7, not Grade 1 again!
In this MYP unit, we’ve focused on resilience. Until recently, it was believed that we either had it or not. My generation grew up with this belief, looking suspiciously at all self-help books, which for a long time were the only ‘authority’ that dared to suggest that it is possible to consciously and deliberately become more resilient as opposed to resilience that was believed to ‘descend’ on people after a major trauma. A lot seems to have changed since then, also at schools, but we still prefer to talk about people who faced adversity and came out stronger than invest time in learning how to become more resilient. On the one hand, we use a language that implies that growth in this are is possible (Man up! Toughen up!); on the other hand, we do not have a systematic approach to developing resilience in ourselves and our children. However, we are not a lost generation in this respect! And if we are not, neither are our children.
It has been obvious since the very beginning of the unit that some talk about resilience was needed. As a provocation, students were presented with a task that was too demanding for them and thus was likely to cause some frustration. Whereas some declared they couldn’t do it and sat back (to make it even more pertinent and ironic, the text the students were required to read was about the concept of ‘learned helplessness’), others joined forces to tackle the task, asked adults for help or used a dictionary. For homework, the students were asked to monitor their mood, identify the moment it improved and pinpoint what made them feel better.
The answers we collected the following lesson included eating candy, petting a dog, playing a favourite game, talking to friends or parents and playing a favourite sport. The exercise proved we all have our coping mechanisms. Their effectiveness may vary from situation to situation but it generally seems to be hindered by the fact that we use them instinctively, not deliberately and purposefully.
The goal of the unit is for the students to discover a wide range of techniques and try to adopt some of them in their daily lives. In order to do so, we are currently looking at recent research and stories of ordinary people who show resilience. We are also lucky to have people in our school community who kindly agreed to be our guest speakers and to share their ways of finding strength in the face of adversity. Among other approaches, we’ve learned about the role of faith and personal beliefs as well as physical exercise.
The students are currently working on their summative task, in which they are supposed to create a YouTube tutorial, presenting some effective resilience techniques.
Been there, done that?
21 August 2016
Do you like the excitement the night before an important day? Even though they’ve been there and done that multiple times, teachers are always excited the night before the start of a new school year. On the one hand, everyone knows what to expect (we’ve planed it, described it in letters to parents and answered their questions); on the other hand, we can never be 100% certain whom we meet the following day. Yes, we do have class lists with birth dates and contact details or we have even taught the students before. However, especially at primary school level, the children who return after summer are never the same children we taught the previous academic year. Missing teeth, new teeth, new stickers, no stickers any more, new haircuts, bigger shoes, bigger backpacks, etc. may be the most obvious signs of change but rarely are the most significant ones. It’s fascinating to watch people change but it’s infinitely more fascinating to participate in and contribute to their growth, which is one of the most compelling aspects of teaching.
At one of my former schools, high school teachers called primary students human becomings as a joke. (When you think about it, that’s what we all are, regardless of age.) We’re so curious at GIS to find out what our returning students have become over the summer. We’re also curious about our new students. But most of all, we’re curious what we all become together this academic year. One thing is sure – the sky is the limit.
I’d like to wish the whole school community a rewarding year.
11th April 2016
It was a great pleasure to watch ‘Noye’s Fludde’ by B. Britten performed at Gjøvik kirke yesterday, especially that three of the performers were GIS students (Vegard and Ingeborg played the violin and Jihui was the Raven). Even though Freud is believed to have said that sometimes cigar is just a cigar, my thoughts went in the same old direction – I couldn’t stop thinking about the analogy between an orchestra and a school.
What’s your favourite piece of classical music? Have you heard it performed by different orchestras? Did you like some performances better than others? It’s amazing how the same notes can be interpreted in different ways to achieve different effects. The effect depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the musicians but most importantly the vision of the conductor. In the context of a PYP school, the role of the conductor is played by the PYP Coordinator.
The coordinator is responsible for the implementation and ongoing development of the programme. He/she works with PYP teachers to ensure that the curriculum, teaching and learning as well as school policies adhere to IB philosophy and requirements. The role includes working with parents in order to build a common understanding of the tenets of the programme in the school community. The coordinator is also a liaison between the school and the IB.
As most of our students have joined us from schools implementing other programmes, it is inevitable that they will experience some differences in teaching and learning at GIS. The PYP is an inquiry-based programme, in which students are active agents engaging in and shaping the learning process while exploring concepts and gaining new understandings, whereas teachers facilitate learning rather than present a prescribed body of knowledge.
Challenging as the shift in the approach to learning might seem, it is facilitated by the IB at every stage. Candidate schools are assigned a consultant, who guides them through the authorization process. Teachers benefit from an array of professional development opportunities, including face-to face as well as online trainings. They have access to a range of support material through the IB’s Online Curriculum Centre. Finally, schools are evaluated on a regular basis and provided with guidelines on how to further improve their programme.
Everyone in the school community has an important role to play in the school’s journey towards PYP authorization. In order to ensure that they all play in tune, the school needs an effective PYP Coordinator. A good coordinator is like a conductor. Watch this video and see for yourself.
Out of my basement, son!
8th March 2016
One of the best aspects of my job is speaking with parents before and after lessons. Well, to be perfectly honest, I prefer the morning drop-off time to the afternoon pickup time. The latter can be stressful as we ensure that children leave the school with the right adults and that those who go on their own walk in the right direction. Mornings, in turn, are an opportunity to chat with parents about anything from weather to homework, to what children say about school at home and about home at school, to oil spillage.
A few weeks ago, during one of the chats, a parent gave me a DVD featuring a school in Russia and he said I should watch it as he had found a lot of similarities between the school and GIS. I chose to take it as a compliment. However, the 21st century that educators so readily quote when asked what they teach (“We need to teach them 21st century skills’) put two hurdles between me and the DVD. Number 1: What do you do with a DVD in the 21st century? And number 2: How do you find time to watch a DVD? What saved me was YouTube and our long awaited winter break.
‘The School’ turned out to be a short documentary on an innovative educational enterprise in Tekos, Russia. Its founder, Mikhail Shchetinin, prides himself on establishing a school where students inquire into significant issues, teach themselves and each other, and use teachers as facilitators rather than fountains of knowledge. The school doesn’t have a fixed curriculum to follow lesson by lesson to be tested at the end of each semester. Instead, children study topics in more depth until they gain a profound understanding of the issue at hand. Shchetinin says that whereas regular schools focus on preparing students to play social roles, his school focuses on the actual life, not just preparing for it.
This reminded me of a lecture by Dr. Yong Zhao at the IB regional conference in 2014. Dr Zhao said that many educational systems focus on preparing students for university. So called ‘college readiness’ has become a much coveted outcome of education. It is the holy grail for most high school teachers, students and parents alike. However, at this point in history, college readiness is not a great product to buy. Never before did so many people have access to tertiary education as universities and colleges have been mushrooming around the world. However, never before was the term boomerang generation used either. It describes young people with a college degree, who cannot find a job and have to move back in with their parents. So the parents seem to have bought a pig in a poke.
Just like universities cannot anymore teach towards degrees defined as a set of purely academic objectives, schools like GIS cannot teach towards university entrance tests. We need to ensure students are able to look after themselves in this new reality, which will soon be replaced by an even newer one. We don’t want them to be college ready, we want them to be, as Dr. Zhao puts it, out-of-basement ready.
Our very first test of how successful we are in helping students become independent, self-regulated learners is our first attempt at the PYP Exhibition. After only 7 months at GIS, Grade 5 students are embarking on research of their own choice, in which they will look at an issue of global importance in its local context and will come up with action in response to a new understanding they gain as a result of the investigation.
If you have 30 minutes to spare, I would strongly recommend that you watch the documentary The School. You will realize that comparing us to the school in Russia, the parent did indeed pay us a compliment.
Finally, do you remember one of the many phrases you were required to memorize in your Latin class: non scholae sed vitae discimus (We don’t learn for school but for life). It’s probably more valid now than ever before.
Which would you rather watch: a quiz show or a talent show?
14th February 2016
A few days ago I held an information evening for parents interested in the IB Middle Years Programme, which we want to offer at GIS in Grades 6 to 10, subject to successful authorization. We only invited the parents who had specifically indicated interest in their child joining us for the MYP, but I was pleased to see a few ‘gatecrashers’. This, once again, proved the power of ‘word-of-mouth publicity’, which in small towns like Gjøvik, can easily rival Twitter. Some parents brought their children to show them the school.
One of the young visitors was intrigued by recent artwork created by GIS students, which was on display in the hallway. She asked what it was and I explained that it had been created out of rubbish by students who had been trying to answer the eternal question: What is art? I asked the girl if she thought our students’ work was art and if anyone could be an artist or should one go to a special school to learn how to become an artist. Ok, these are tough questions even for adults, so I asked the girl if she‘d like to try and create something out of rubbish, to which she replied, ‘No, I’m not creative.’
As an educator and parent, I’d rather my child left school not knowing something as basic as the times tables than thinking he wasn’t creative and, which is even worse, passively accepting it. The times tables are an easy fix. Besides, most knowledge nowadays is readily available as long as we have a smartphone and coverage. And when we don’t, it’s usually because we choose so. It is increasingly important to be able to tell true information from what someone might want us to believe. Also, if our children don’t know how to use existing knowledge to build new understandings, the knowledge we make them absorb, no matter how vast, would not be much use outside of a quiz show. And when was the last time you watched one? Don’t we watch The X Factor or X’s Got Talent and so on now? Aren’t they all about creativity?
One of the reasons why creativity is neglected (to say the least) at schools is that it’s inconvenient. Asking questions that have only one correct answer is much easier and safer for the teacher. In this way, one avoids ambiguity and having to justify his/her assessment. When marking a task, one also saves time if he/she is only looking for specific prescribed information. Tasks requiring creative thinking require also more time to mark as one has to consider another person’s perspective, which may be different to his/her own. As a result, some educators at best nod their head and say a student’s answer is interesting but the correct answer is… They appear to acknowledge the thinking but, in fact, dismiss it as impractical, whereas not only should creativity be appreciated but it also needs to be developed.
Educators are responsible for creating opportunities for students to engage in meaningful activities that require creative thinking. Furthermore, creativity mustn’t be locked up the art classroom. It should be cultivated in maths and PE as well. The simple reason for this is that we don’t need to think creatively in just a few art-related professions. We all need to be increasingly creative in both professional and personal life in order to keep up with what’s going on around us. Moreover, at this point in time, it isn’t enough to accept the fact that creativity is useful in every job as it is very likely that when our children enter the job market, they will need to invent jobs for themselves in order to avoid un- or underemployment.
PS As I was sitting down to type up this blog entry, my son (8) came back from the swimming pool and skipping ‘hello’, as he does when he’s excited, he asked me what I would do with my wet trunks after swimming if I didn’t have a plastic bag to put them in. Wrapping them up in a towel didn’t impress him. Nor did a few more ideas, so I had to face the inevitable and asked him what he had come up with. Proudly, he said he had put his trunks into his plastic goggle case. He dangled the case in front of my face, saying ‘I’m the cleverest!’ So, it looks like he understands the importance of creative thinking. Therefore, we can move on to work on his modesty now!
Six months young, we stand proud!
6 February 2016
Have you ever enthusiastically committed to something without fully understanding the context? I’ve even signed contracts and moved countries together with my family.
Last December, in this can-do spirit, I agreed to speak at a conference organized by Abelia in Mustad Næringspark, which took place last Tuesday. I was asked to talk about what makes GIS a success, which should be a simple task for any school principal. I thought I’d be no exception. I thought so until I found out whom I would follow. Prior to my presentation, Mr. Hans Mustad would talk about a business that has been run by one family for six generations now. To get the proportions right, consider this: GIS has existed for six… months! So, no pressure! Oh, as if that weren’t enough, I was given a quarter of an hour and I was asked not to exceed the time.
If you’ve ever played one of the games in which you are supposed to name three objects you would save if your house were on fire or three items you wouldn’t be able to live without on a desert island, you know how I felt. Having drawn a list of factors, I tried to group them under broader concepts until I arrived at just one: GIS’s success is the outcome of the hard work done by our staff. We were extremely lucky to attract people who take their work seriously and don’t shy away from challenges. It is their resourcefulness, patience and persistence that make GIS a great school.
The amount of time and effort each staff member puts into his/her work is phenomenal but so are the fruits of their work! We started six months ago with 31 students and a permit to accept up to 60 students. Grade 1 for 2016-2017 reached its maximum size of 20 already in December 2015 and we now have a waiting list. We have also accepted new students into existing classes and currently have 40 students in Grades 1 – 5, which together with next year’s Grade 1 puts us at the limit of the current permit. Therefore, we have applied to adjust the limit to the full capacity of the current building, which is 80. It’s tremendous growth and it is even more impressive if you realize we do not really actively advertise. Our students and their parents are the best ambassadors of the school and we are very proud to know they recommend GIS to their friends, which brings us back to the fantastic work of our staff!
In conclusion, I was proud to represent GIS at Abelia’s conference even though the school has existed for only six months, not 6 generations.
Busy, busy, busy…
31 December 2015
December was an extremely busy time at GIS! We enjoyed Christmas Concert organized by Mrs. Rasen as well as Winter Party, which was organized by Student Council. Small as we are, we abound in creativity and we enjoy using it! On the last day of school, we also issued our first semester reports. We hope they were informative and gave parents an insight into their children’s learning at GIS.
We’d like to wish everyone a great year and hope you check back every now and then to learn about latest developments at GIS.
Even though there are still a few days before we return to work, we’re already looking forward to it as we’re anxious to meet our new students!
26 November 2015
It has been a while since I posted an entry. I’d like to share some highlights from this busy but exciting time.
- Staff and parents drafted a mission statement for GIS. You can find it on our home page.
- GIS opened its doors to 30 children representing 10 different nationalities in Grades 1-5.
- We had an official opening ceremony, which gathered a lot of supporters of the idea that Gjovik needs an international school.
- Parent-teacher conferences gave the parents an opportunity to find out how their children have been performing in a new school system, often in a new language.
- Our first Scholastic Book Sale was a challenge for the courier but made a lot of children happy. The purchases made by the parents bought some more books for our library. Thank you, Mrs. Rasen, for organizing the sale!
- Originally a high school teacher, I covered classes in Grade 1-2 on two separate days. To the end of the second one, a Grade 1 pupil said, ‘Mr. Armanski, today was better.’ So you can teach an old dog new tricks!
- We celebrated our first International Day. It was also the first opportunity for GIS students to present the outcomes of the teaching and learning to date to parents and guests. One of the highlights was a presentation by Mr. Ringdal’s students on Norwegian customs and traditions with some unforgettable footage in it. The event was a great success and we’re looking forward to showcasing our students’ growing understandings in the future.
- All current work by Grade 3-4 on display in English for the first time! I was showing interested parents around the school and was explaining how we let students use Norwegian along with English to communicate their understanding and knowledge when we approached the Grade 3-4 classroom to discover that all work on display was in English! Well done, Grade 3-4 and Mr. Duevel!
- We received a 20th application for Grade 1 starting in August 2016! It was clear from all conversations with interested parents that it was the testimony of existing parents that ‘sold’ the school. We are grateful to all parents for their trust! Also, thank you for your direct feedback – it’s extremely rewarding to know you want your child to be here!
- We hosted 5 students on Open Day, some of whom will return to us as regular students in January 2016.
- Book and Cake Sale brought the GIS community together. We are grateful for all the book donations and the delicious cakes. Thank you, Student Council and Ms. W. for organizing the event!
- We had our first school photo taken. Even though we will look older in it, we’re already looking forward to next year’s photo to see how we’ve grown!
- We have a new website! I would like to thank all contributors, especially Simon McCallum for taking care of the technical aspect and Dennis Wanda for taking photos for the site.
I hope you return to our website to learn what’s new at GIS. I strongly recommend that you visit the school blog section to learn what happens in the classrooms. This section of the site will be up and running in early January 2016.
Where Has Your Creativity Gone?
15 June 2015
What can you see in the photograph below? Take you time. Look at it again. Think. What is it?
At first glance, it’s a piece of wood left by the people who felled a tree at Fastland just before our BBQ there last Monday. Did you notice a tree had been felled? You probably saw what was left of the trunk, some twigs lined ready for collection and quite a bit of sawdust. Did you notice the chunk of wood in the photo? If you did, how long did your eyes rest on it?
Don’t worry if you didn’t notice it. It wasn’t a test and you didn’t fail it! I didn’t notice it either. (That’s the only reason you didn’t fail the test!) Not until Vetle (Grade 1) picked it up and brought it to show his father. He said he had just found the New York skyline! The power of imagination! We all had it when we were Vetle’s age. Some of us have preserved more of it than others but, without a shadow of a doubt, we’ve lost quite a bit, haven’t we?
However, it isn’t inevitable! In fact, we can’t afford to give up on creative thinking in today’s world. It has always been important – all inventions are the fruits of creative thinking. Yet, until recently one could get by without being particularly creative and still have a relatively good job that ensured a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Those were the days… However, that world is gone and is not coming back. One needs to be more creative now than ever before and, even though it might appear daunting, it isn’t. It’s exciting!
As educators, we need to make sure we create an environment, in which creativity is encouraged and fostered. It’s easier than it seems. We don’t need to try hard to sell students something they might resist. We just need to reach for what’s already there. And in abundance!
Sadly, fostering creativity isn’t a mainstream approach in schools. If you have 20 minutes to spare, I strongly recommend that you watch this TED talk, in which Sir Ken Robinson explains that schools in fact kill creativity. You won’t regret the time. Ken Robinson shares interesting and significant ideas, and he does so in a very entertaining way. (Interestingly, he does everything we’re taught not to do when speaking in front of an audience but he will hold your undivided attention throughout his entire talk!)
As a teaser, here are a few quotes from the video:
All children have a talent but we squander it.
Creativity should be treated like literacy.
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original.
We get educated out of creativity.
Finally, do you remember your classmates at high school? Who of them is doing better now: those who had top grades because they crammed for exams or those who thought out of the box and sometimes caused trouble? And which type are you?
WHAT WILL YOUR VERSE BE?
15th May 2015
Do you remember ‘Dead Poets Society’? I just started high school when I watched it for the first time. Our Headmaster booked a nearby cinema and the whole school went to watch the film during school time. It was a blast! I had just got into this prestigious, highly selective school that ranked among the best ones in the country and believed I was getting the best education there was. And there he was – Robin Williams. As John Keating, a new English teacher at an all-boys school, he negated almost everything I was getting from my acclaimed teachers!
While I was ‘studying’ literature in my classes by reading and memorizing what celebrated literary critics had written about it, he told his students to rip out pages from books written by celebrated literary critics that provided ready-made analyses, since he wanted the boys to experience poetry and think for themselves. While my studies of literature were confined to the classroom, he took his boys out to the football pitch to show them analogies between literature and physical activity.
Oh, and how I hated my PE classes, where my performance was measured and assessed against how a high school boy should perform as calculated by some pundits. Why didn’t our PE teachers tell us what John Keating tells his students in the film, ‘Sport is actually a chance for us to have other human beings push us to excel.’ Doesn’t it make more sense to compete against oneself and one’s limitations than a table full of statistics? And why should we strive to be the same?
I never understood why my Headmaster wanted us to watch Dead Poets Society. We probably discussed it in a class afterwards. We may have written an essay about it. Sadly, the film did not change the way we were taught. We carried on like before, probably thinking that we were lucky to miss a few lessons and the film was just entertainment. In retrospect, I see it as an opportunity that was wasted. It didn’t have to end like that. Whatever challenges the status quo, is an opportunity for improvement.
Dead Poets Society is an inspiring film for everyone, not just teachers. My favourite scene is the one in which John Keating quotes Walt Whitmann. I don’t want to spoil it for you by describing the scene. You can watch it here.
So, what will your verse be?
27th April 2015
Speaking at the Eidsiva conference at the Quality Strand Hotel last Friday, I asked the conference participants why they send their children to school. Apart from the child-free time that school gives them, I expected to hear this was their way to ensure their children were ready to compete on the job market and secure an attractive position for themselves. That was exactly what they said.
So, what makes employees attractive today? And can we be sure the same qualities will be sought after when today’s primary students are looking for their first job? At GIS, we think big, so I thought I should find out what the best employer in the world – Google – looks for in candidates. (In Fortune’s Best Company To Work For 2014 ranking, Google ranked No.1 for the fifth time!)
- We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes.
- We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions.
- We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think.
- Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.
- We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you.
- We’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.
As you can see, Google does not hire only those who attended an Ivy League university. What’s more, they specifically say they are ‘less concerned about grades and transcripts.’ What they look for is skills and attitudes that allow employees to adapt to and thrive in ever-changing circumstances. In other words, they hire lifelong learners.
Therefore, as educators, we need to ensure we create opportunities for our students to develop such qualities. We need to keep our finger on the pulse and proactively devise curricula that prepare for the future rather than replicate the past or even the present. Keeping an eye on trends on the job market should help us move in the right direction.
Finally, if you consider Google’s requirements in isolation, out of the career context, you will realise they are not only job skills. They are life skills. Who doesn’t need to tackle problems or deal with ambiguity on a daily basis? Therefore, if we imbue children with a love for learning at the very early stages of their school life together with the belief that learning never ceases, we set them up for success no matter what their many jobs will require from them, even though we may not be able to predict what kind of jobs will emerge by the time today’s first graders enter the job market.
Unless like me you procrastinated on having children, it is quite likely that at some point you will compete for jobs with your child’s generation. If they are trained to be super effective, quick learners, what will you do? There’s still time to revisit your current mindset!
LEARNING = RISK-TAKING
19th April 2015
Preparing for yesterday’s Try Out Day, I mulled a number of different ideas over. As usual, I had too many, so I had to filter them. I started where I tell my students they should start when they need to prepare a presentation. The first step is to consider your audience. So I did and immediately regretted that! As we open Grades 1 to 5 this upcoming school year, I expected to see students at both ends of the spectrum and at this age, 4-5 years makes a huge difference in terms of interests, attention span and knowledge. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, a large part of the audience was supposed to be adults. Whereas at our age (sigh) 4-5 years does not make a huge difference anymore, we come from different cultures and backgrounds, and have different expectations.
So, how to cater for such a diverse audience? I needed a common denominator. We may come from different cultures, speak different languages and subscribe to different values but were going to come together that Saturday because we are interested in education. We are interested in learning and want our children to love learning. And do we ever stop learning? That was my common denominator! I realized I was going to speak to a group of learners.
As to learn is to go beyond what we already know or understand, it inevitably means we need to go beyond our comfort zone, which can be a big challenge. Some of the fears to overcome there include the fear of failure, as pointed out by one of the participants on Saturday. Fear in a reasonable amount is positive. It can even save our life. However, it is often a factor that inhibits learning. How will I feel about myself if I fail? What will people say if I fail? There is always a risk we fail. No matter what we do. However, if we avoid taking risks, we prevent ourselves from learning.
I gave a few examples of risk-takers yesterday. The GIS Board is composed of successful professionals, who stepped out of their comfort zone and decided to set up an international school for the local community. The teachers we have hired are leaving well established international schools to start a school that is yet to be built. My partner and I are taking a risk that will have an influence on our eight-year-old child, who isn’t just changing schools but also homes, languages and countries. If all these people shied away from taking risks, Gjøvik would not have an international school.
If we don’t take risks we don’t develop. We’re stuck with our current perception of the world. If we are brave enough to take risks, we learn. We learn when we succeed; we learn when we fail. Either way, we grow. What if my life changes? Yes, it can be seen as a scary question but I have another one for you. What if it doesn’t?