Head of School Message

Welcome to Maine Central Institute! I am deeply honored to be Maine Central Institute’s 22nd Head of School, and I am happy to welcome you to MCI. 

Chris McDonald head of school

        Chris McDonald

My family arrived at MCI in mid-July 2019, after a service trip to Vietnam where I led student volunteers from the United States to work on projects with the Sakura-Olympia School in Danang. In the short time that we’ve been living in Maine, the MCI community has embraced my family, welcoming us with open arms and with genuine feelings of gratitude and helpfulness. People in central Maine and around the world work to keep MCI stronger, and they invite everyone to join them in achieving that shared goal.

Town academies like MCI represent what makes communities in Maine unique, and the welcoming spirit means a lot to newcomers like me. When classes start in the fall, please come to campus for a visit, watch a game, see a performance and share in some of MCI’s time-honored traditions. I am eager to meet every one of you!

Since its beginning in 1866, MCI has always been a safe and supportive educational environment for students to learn, discover academic passions, develop and enhance skills, and prepare for the next step of their lives as young adults. In small classes where rigorous academics is the focus, our caring faculty encourage students to actively participate in the educational process, offering guidance for students to reach their full potential. Every day, we take pride in sharing with students a love of learning and the value of participation in the arts and athletics – with the shared goal of helping students build character and strengthen values that will carry them through life.

And yet, MCI is much more than classes and activities: like Maine itself, MCI is a welcoming community that cares for each other and respects each person on their own terms. More importantly, the educational experience at MCI nurtures strong friendships and connections that last a lifetime.

In my 25-year career in education, I have found that a strong school is constructed by a strong community, and a strong community is constructed by a strong school. I am committed to building on MCI’s relationship with the community, and I am honored to serve MCI and support its mission for years to come.

Now more than ever, MCI strives to bridge connections between people from down the street with people from all over the world. I am proud to work tirelessly in welcoming everyone to Maine Central Institute.

Christopher M. McDonald, Head of School

Read Mr. McDonald's Education Blog

Read Head of School McDonald's blogs on education:

Yearbook Meanderings

I have been asked to write a letter for the yearbook, which is quite an honor; however, I share it now rather than at the end of the year.  Why?  By the end of the year, we are in a reflective state of the high school years gone by (our senior class), and I would prefer for them to be thinking about the year now and how they can make the most of the final months at MCI.  So here it is:

To the MCI Class of 2020,

Writing in a yearbook always increases anxiety, for you know that whatever you write will become a part of history with all the students and class of 2020. And regarding history, MCI has a rich history dating back to 1866, so one must be most thoughtful as these words form a permanent part of the MCI narrative.

We began this year with two focal points: resilience, which served as our theme, and community, which served to inform us on place. From the onset, our new boarding students from over 20 different countries arrived two weeks early for our SOLI program. During this time they demonstrated perseverance in overcoming fears and anxieties about a new country, state, and town, not to mention the challenges of making friends far away from home with people they have never met before. Our girls field hockey team scored a dramatic victory over Gardiner, never giving up throughout the entire game, knowing they can and will overcome. Our BBT ballet troupe remained resilient during the Cultural Heritage Day performance despite some technical difficulties: they never left the script. And our Homecoming soccer matches displayed teams, both boys and girls, that despite trailing by several goals into the second half, were able to muster the strength and determination to tie and send the games into overtime.

From the beginning of school, we also witnessed our school community coming together to help bring awareness and visibility to climate change with other students across the globe. We kindly welcomed thirteen students for two weeks from our partner school in China, an outreach that culminated in their cultural experience of our Halloween here in Pittsfield. These same students also bore witness to the MCI students, faculty, and staff serving the greater Pittsfield community with our Community Service Day. Our sport teams and clubs have raised awareness and funds for other national priorities, such as autism and breast cancer. At Thanksgiving, our Key Club and Kindness Crew prepare Thanksgiving Day baskets for the local community, and at Christmas, the MCI community provides toys for kids in the community that may not otherwise receive any. Whether within the campus of MCI, at the town, state, national, or global level, we are making a difference in communities.

To be a part of such a place with such people is an honor and privilege. It is one that I never take for granted as I constantly seek ways to grow and to improve for betterment of others. And it is clear to me that this graduating class of 2020 is no different in their determination. Continue to make resilience and community the very fabric of who you are. MCI has provided you with the character development, maturity, and experiences for you to make a difference in all aspects of your life--personal, professional, global citizen. To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”--

“I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'

Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades

Forever and forever when I move."


Keep those margins fading, and keep moving with the MCI spirit in your life’s journey.


Warm Regards,

Christopher M. McDonald

Head of School, Maine Central Institute


Building Bridges

(9/13/19) - Proud to be the first North American high school to enter into an extensive MOU with a Cambodian International Prep School to offer innovative and progressive programming for students from both sides of the pond. The agreement was captured on Cambodian national television.


Friday Night Lights

(9/ 1/19) - Friday Night Lights, a 1990 nonfiction book written by H.G. Bissinger, was adapted to a 2004 film of the same name.  It also became a two-season miniseries about that time.  While I did not watch the movie or miniseries, I did read the book. What struck me the most–something completely different from my high school days–was the interconnection between the town and the team. In my high school days, we did attract equal numbers of people to football games, but these were primarily friends, families, alumni, and others who had a direct relationship to the school or/and the students. There were not town residents of Harper Woods, MI, coming to the game because they felt the connection between the town and the team!

As I looked upon the crowd when we came out to mid-field for “the new guy” introduction at half time, the scene revealed to me what this game is really all about.  From left to right I saw a group of students from our dormitories who were enjoying every moment of the experience (from our fireworks before the game to the cannon shots every time we scored). Knowing the rules of the game and how it is played is really not that important. I saw a group of older folks sitting and chatting in their fold-up chairs.  There were parents wearing hoodies and sweatshirts from the team, and infants that seemed as small as the footballs themselves cuddled up with their mothers.  It was half-time, and everyone seemed to move their conversations from the play-by-play to whatever else may be on their minds as friends conversed with friends, students with students, parents with parents. Friday night lights, indeed, seemed to create this atmosphere of connection . . . no matter the age, the background, the country of origin.

The essence of such an event is not so much the game itself. It is the bringing together of people for a common cause to celebrate a moment in time when we can all be together in a safe and loving community and enjoy the energy of our teams as they perform to the best of their abilities–individually and as a team. This is Friday Night Lights in Pittsfield, Maine, USA.


(8/20/19) - School for new students begins tomorrow, and school for all students begins on Wednesday. Two weeks ago, we worked with our local students to help them with transition strategies as they move from middle to high school. Last week, we worked with our new international students to help them transition to a new country, a new school, and a new way of doing things. You can take a look here at their experience, captured in a few images: 


Back in May, when the administrative team and I began pondering our school theme for 2019-20, many nouns were up for election. After much debate, the team decided upon resilience. Reasons were many, from recent challenges facing the town and a lower tick in demographics to an uncertainty about a new Head of School and a new Superintendent for MSAD53 (our local area). Everyone thought that the ability to be able to bounce back quickly from challenges and difficulties–toughness, if you will–should be our calling card this year.

Springing forward to August 26, 2019, resilience is clearly evident in our faculty and staff, students, and town. It is not an idea. It is who we are. Our BBT ballet performance this summer demonstrated a commitment to perfection despite numerous challenges along the way–a testimony of perseverance by our students and teachers:


Despite the added burden of dead and diseased trees that needed removal and clean-up as well as a sprawling campus that required constant physical plant and grounds attention, we will open tomorrow with a stunningly beautiful campus that has been meticulously prepared for our boarding students to have comfortable rooms in an aesthetically pleasing environment and all students to learn in clean and comfortable classrooms. And in this world of ever-changing technological advancements in the field of education, which requires our teachers to learn and relearn; in this world where we added advisees to our administrative team to reduce the size of groups for the benefit of the students; in this world of preparing delicious food with a variety of options despite rising food costs; and in this world where it is clear that a school needs a supportive town and a town needs a supportive school . . . I have seen resilience.

Returning to my first paragraph, resilience is not a noun that is abstract and simply an idea. Take a look at the video. Rather, resilience is a defining feature of who we are, who comprises this school and town–the very fabric of MCI.

Pittsfield, MCI, and Possibility

(7/5/2019) - As the family arrived into Pittsfield on Sunday, July 14, I decided that I would approach this new environment through the lens of a five year old (I happen to have one with me for comparison). I would observe without preconceptions, but with wonder; without limits, but with limitless possibilities; without fear of the unknown, but with excitement and questions. I would mix this with the lens of an educator to see what results!

As we approached the new house, my son immediately pointed out the railroad tracks, the historical museum with a real caboose, and, when we walked through Manson Park that afternoon, the railroad bridge over the river. Wow!  He was thrilled and began asking questions about why cabooses no longer are on trains, why train tracks have a certain width, why the bridge for trains is different than those for cars, and so on.  As I fielded this onslaught of questions, I switched into the educator mode:  what an opportunity for students to learn about the engineering of railway, bridges, and history–truly interdisciplinary and STEAM possibilities. How about the river and water? Where did it start? Where does it end?  Why does the water go that way?  How could I describe this scene with my senses?  Poem?  Artistic drawing?  But this was only the tip of the iceberg in our new environment.

We soon noticed a single engine aircraft floating low to the house and seemingly landing right across the street from our house. We decided to follow it, and in less than a mile walk we saw an airstrip. As we approached the fence, we saw an assortment of single engine and twin engine aircraft parked on the runway, and while we were there, a single engine plane appeared over the horizon and made a graceful landing. The onslaught of why questions began: how come the airstrip is shorter than the ones in Montreal? Why do some planes have one engine and others two?  How do the planes know which direction to take off and land? An airport so close to a school–the aeronautical engineering possibilities began flying (no pun intended) through my head. What a great venue for student learning!

When we returned to the house, we realized the public library was only two houses down the street. It was still early, so we decided to investigate this beautifully preserved building and check out some books. On our way in, a monument at the entrance recognized those who sacrificed their lives during the Civil War. The architecture of this building coupled with this monument opened yet again the possibility of discovery, history, and further study. If the statues could talk, what would they say? How were they made?  If I could design and construct one in the art studio for my “history,” what might it look like? What a laboratory in our midst! And this is before we stepped inside.


Dusk was approaching, but the spirit of adventure on this first day showed no signs of ebbing. A bike ride was in order, but both of our bikes needed air. Riding up to the corner gas station, we searched for an air pump. Yes, on the side of the building it was there, but it cost a few quarters, and we had none.  Disappointed, Kien said we should go home and get money, but by the time we come back, it may be too dark. A man who overheard our conversation said not to worry, for he had some quarters in his truck. I told him that we had no bills and needed to go back to get some, but he said again not to worry; it was on him. Kien and I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, and when I introduced myself, he mentioned that he was an MCI grad, and he was glad he could help.

Pittsfield, MCI, and possibility–a town filled with history, a town filled with STEM and interdisciplinary possibilities for real-world and hands-on learning, but most importantly, a town and school filled with kindness, pride, and place to call home.

School Killed My Creativity

(6/7/2017) - Picking up my three-year old from school is my favorite task of the day. Not only am I still a superhero in his little world, but I also bear witness to genuine excitement about learning and, in his little hand, some sort of creative project. This varies from scribble on half sheets of paper, which recently produced “Mr. Tomato,” to construction paper cut outs of guitars with flowers or cats with wings. He eagerly explains what he produced and how he did it, and we proudly display these authentic works throughout the house.

Shifting to my day job, I listen to the gripes and groans from students in grades nine through eleven as they prepare for June exams. These voices come from all along the bell curve–top students to average students to struggling students. As I assemble this chorus in my mind, I notice a common theme:  student creativity and authenticity has been lost in formative evaluations across all academic subject matter lines (with the exception of the art and music program). And this has been a common chorus in the many schools spanning my career: elite boarding schools, parochial schools, public schools, international/bilingual schools.

What is being tested primarily is memory. While memory and teaching students how to memorize has its own cognitive benefits, it is not what students should be mastering in every course across the curriculum.  Looking at some of their review packets, it is clear that while this is not the only element of their exam, it is certainly a large portion of it. Harold Bloom suggests that evaluation and creativity are the highest orders of thinking.  It would follow, then, that if the academic year focused on ensuring that students have fundamental skills in respective disciplines, shouldn’t these skills be put to “the test” by demanding them to be used in an evaluative and/or creative capacity?  For example, in a European studies course, an exam question could read: will the European Union exist as it is now in ten years from now? Why? Why not? Base your analysis on the geopolitical and cultural aspects of Europe that we examined this year. Or for a biology class, what specifically are the challenges of making new antibiotics to counter ‘super-bugs’? What do you see as the greatest threat to the human race in the future, super-bugs or super-viruses? Why? How can we combat this? Base your reply on the cellular nature of these life forms.

As educators, we need to demand more from ourselves by stepping away from what we have always done and have on our computer drives to what is happening here and now in the world, regardless of our respective disciplines.  By planting ourselves in the present, we develop relevance within the student learner, and we embolden them when we demand from them evaluations and creative solutions to problems now and in the future. Maybe then, when I pick my thirteen year old up from school in the future, I may see that same spark of learning excitement that I saw today.

Service Learning – Year Two

(4/6/17) - Quite proud of the year-long service learning project between the Stanstead College students of Quebec, Canada, and the Olympia Schools students of Hanoi, Vietnam. This is year two of the collaboration. Helen from SC made the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFOpX1BGSw8&feature=youtu.be

This is the second year of the project. The first year was at the same location, video produced by TOS students:


Bringing PBL and Internship Together

(2/25/17) - The Capstone Project Internship

Real world work with the guiding principles of STEM applications

Credit: 1.0 credit, STEM, awarded by Stanstead College, Quebec, Canada

Grades: Students entering grade 11 and 12 in the Fall of 2017 (some exceptions made for advanced grade 10)

Dates: June 5 to July 21 (2-3 weeks remote, digital work; 2 weeks of project execution in country; 1 week remote, digital follow-up)

Location: Pleiku, Vietnam (SOS Children’s Village and local businesses)

Overview: The Capstone Project Internship (CPI) is an innovative project-based program that provides students with an opportunity to engage in rigorous scholarly practice of the core academic skills necessary for the successful completion of a real world internship. Built on the foundation of two principles — project-based learning and internship — it is designed to complement and enhance the in-depth, interdisciplinary study provided through research, trial-and-error, and reflective post-project analysis. It cultivates curious, independent, and collaborative scholars and prepares them to make logical, evidence-based decisions, and real-time adaptions: project management. It will also serve as a springboard for college application essay writing, which is an added component and requirement for those entering grade 12.

Essential tasks: design, execute, and de-brief programs for local businesses and the Children’s village to maximize resource allocations, maintain sustainability, enhance quality of programs and/or products. Students will begin by analyzing the current needs assessment of the either a local business or the children in the SOS village. Working remotely at their home locations on shared virtual space and within specified budget parameters, students will propose schedules, programs, data-collecting processes, and quality metrics. Upon approval, these programs will go into place upon arrival in Pleiku, Vietnam, where all constituents will meet in person and make final preparations. Plans will be executed on site(s), and upon completion of tasks, post-project analysis will occur with publication and strategies for modifications presented. Students will return to their respective homes and work remotely, and final products will be shared on common platforms and social media sites. College essay writing, if applicable, will occur simultaneously as students will be keeping a detailed journal of their field observations, data collection, and activities.

Methodology: DOASAPP™

Discover, Organize, Analyze, Synthesize, Authenticate, Predict, Publish

Skill Development:

Reading Comprehension and Metacognitive Awareness – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE

· Grasp of increasingly complex nonfiction (informational) texts with added depth of understanding through the acquisition of developmentally appropriate reading strategies.

Level 2 – (10) Develop an understanding of scientific and/or mathematical concepts by accessing information from multiple sources.

Learn to self-teach: access multiple sources to aid oneself in problem solving.

Evaluate the scientific accuracy and significance of information.

Understand the sequence of a text (ability to recall/re-access earlier material).

Redefine key terms and phrases authentically.

Take notes for meaning.

Use notes as a source for review.

Level 3 – (11) Skim a text and/or scholarly writing (e.g. scientific article) with pre-determined purpose for relevant information.

Navigate and decipher between valid and invalid Internet information.

Level 4 – (12) Refine the ability to retrieve relevant information from a problem and filter non-relevant information.

Be able to see the broader historical context of discovery and future implications and applications of different areas of study.

Justify the validity of interpretations of data.

Advanced Identify the strengths/weaknesses of informational texts.

Evaluate the quality of informational sources.

Multimedia, Art, Oral Comprehension – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE

· Evaluation of web-sites; interpretation of non-verbal and oral information

· Savvy choice of reliable and varied references, ability to glean information from charts, graphs, tables, visual and artistic pieces

Level 2 – (10) Develop and use spreadsheets.

Access relevant sources for a project.

Use virtual simulators to develop/demonstrate understanding of material.

Level 3 – (11) Select an appropriate graphical representation for a set of data and use appropriate statistics to communicate information about the data.

Use basic Excel formatting and graphical representation.

Evaluate graphical (visual) information for what it shows and does not show; make extrapolations and mathematical computations.

Draw connections between different mediums of information conveying similar concepts.

Level 4 – (12) Create the guidelines/rubric for an effective multi-media presentation.

Assess the quality of visual presentations based upon content and style.

Interpret graphs with mathematical models.

Advanced Evaluate presentations and reports in terms of content and style; offer specific feedback for enhancement and further study.

Critical Thinking – Applied Math & Science

· Demonstration of increasingly complex critical thinking skills (Bloom’s taxonomy)

· Discernment of relationships between increasingly complex abstract ideas and information, primarily evaluation.

Level 2 – (10) Analyze the findings of a given experiment.

Differentiate between laws, theories, postulates, hypotheses.

Identify patterns in data, what it suggests and does not suggest.

Prove theories/find exceptions to a rule (if any).

Extrapolate charts and graphs.

Make connections between classroom content (theory) and environment (real world).

Understand when an answer/conclusion is reached and why.

Recognize continuity/progression of math and science.


Critical thinking–Knowledge, Comprehension, Application–Bloom’s first three levels of higher order thinking.

Level 3 – (11) Analyze the findings of scientific research.

Determine laws and theories from observations and data.

Understanding bias in experiments and samples.

Use, manipulate, and understand how controls work in an experiment.

Understand how variables may affect data.

Evaluate statistical significance.

Infer implications of seemingly disconnected examples to learned concepts.

Level 4 – (12) Bloom’s highest orders of thinking–Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation–students to respond to and generate questions in this realm.

Advanced Create authentic experiments and problems for discovery, predicting outcomes and defending results.

Postulate problems for further study.

Inquiry & Meaning Making – Applied Math & Science

· Ability not only to tackle questions posed by others but also to identify and articulate the questions that require solutions (Bloom’s questions)

· Application of purposeful inquiry to stated problems in order to evaluate a situation and articulate how solutions may be found

-Application of technology to measure, investigate, and calculate.

· Make observations, raise questions, and formulate hypotheses.

Level 2 – (10) Hypothesize and give reasons behind hypothesis.

Predict based upon prior knowledge.

Formulate questions that can be investigated in the lab/understand whether or not questions can be investigated in the lab.

Recreate a previously completed lab exercise.

Make connections between various theories and laws in nature.

Evaluate the accuracy of scientific findings and their limitations.

Recognize sources of error in an experiment/derive ways of decreasing said error.

Verify previous discoveries.

Evaluate and summarize the results of experiments.

Level 3 – (11) Select required materials, equipment, and conditions for conducting an experiment.

Write procedures that are clear and replicable.

Investigate and discern the integrity of others’ experiments.

Critique and question biases of research (e.g., scientist, investigative journalist).

Formulate questions that can be addressed with data and collect, organize, and display relevant data to answer them.

Develop and evaluate inferences and predictions that are based on data.

Design further experiments based upon data results.

Infer and draw conclusions by statistically manipulating raw data.

Level 4 – (12) Create a lab given only a question and/or concept.

Express the knowns and unknowns when approaching a new problem.

Recognize themes that identify skill sets that may be useful in problems.

Understand and articulate relevancy of problems and analogous situations in which the methods used to solve may apply.

Advanced Evaluate the technology used–its limitations and liabilities–in measurements and investigations; propose alternate uses of technology, research techniques, and problem-solving strategies if need be.

Writing, Speaking and Digital Expression – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE

· Ability to produce fluid, well-organized, and clearly articulated written expression of ideas; facility with technological tools for appropriate and effective communication

· Effective and varied use of sentences, vocabulary, punctuation; structured and logical progression of communication in all forms

Level 3 – (11) Present relationships between and among variables in appropriate forms.

Represent data and relationships between and among variables in charts and graphs.

Use appropriate technology (e.g., graphing software) and other tools.

Level 4 – (12) Work with digital tools used at the university and professional level, recognizing what the strengths and limitations are. (Calculators, Applications, etc.)

Show solutions with clear and well-organized structure.

Advanced Publish scientific and mathematical reports, labs, discoveries, etc..

Character and Citizenship Development – Applied Math & Science

· Understanding that learning shapes ethical and empathetic traits; ability to work collaboratively with others; intellectual risk-taking; accountability for one’s actions

· Empathy – Compassion – Integrity – Courage – Teamwork – Humility – Intellectual curiosity – Ownership – Responsibility

Level 2 – (10) Work as part of a group (fill a given role).

Own and report errors in an experiment.

Understand the importance of presenting correct information.

Recognize the consequences of error (or hiding error/intentional miscalculations).

Recognize ethics in findings.

Understand the responsibility of human beings in the world (natural environment).

Identify and critique arguments about personal or societal issues based on scientific evidence.

Evaluate scientific explanations in a peer review process or discussion format.

Recognize motivation in science.

Level 3 – (11) Lead a group or groups towards a single goal.

Delegate tasks.

Accept and work effectively in a variety of roles in a group.

Understanding equality of roles in a group (no role is lesser than another — without all working together, the group will fail).

Level 4 – (12) Publish or present ethical positions to the school or general community, either as a group or individually.

Advanced Evaluate the global implications of scientific, mathematical, and technological issues and innovations in terms of ethics and legal statutes in terms of International laws.

Why Doesn't Every Class Start with Current Events?

(1/29/17) - I ponder why every teacher in every discipline does not seize on the opportunity to begin each and every class with current events. Regardless of the discipline, news web sites are now designed with tabs that identify geographical regions, areas of interest, such as Finance or Science and Technology, and even categories of leisure, such as Travel. So why take the time to do this?

1) Relevance. Students and constantly asking “what does this have to do with anything? why do I need to know this?” One of my classes is currently studying “Macbeth”, and as we build a psychological profile on him and anticipate future outcomes, Donald Trump dominates the headlines on every news channel. Where do we see similarities between the two? Differences? And what about Lady Macbeth–how does she manipulate and control his actions? Do we see anybody like this with Trump?  Associations and connections are made, and students begin to understand the importance of analyzing what leaders say, what others say of them, what they do, and how we might be able to anticipate their actions in the future.

2) Navigating Information. We never open one news source. Typically, we will look at three from different parts of the world. Usually, the three sources are American, British, and Korean or Japanese. Students look at the headlines that often time match, yet the content seems different in its presentation, tone, and analysis. What a better way to teach students about bias, facts, subtleties, and sources than to do informal side-by-side comparison on a daily basis.

3) Innovative Thinking. We recently came across an article on a discovery at Harvard University–solid hydrogen. As we investigated further, we looked at images of the crystal lattice structure, discussed why it would be a more powerful rocket fuel, why it will replace copper as an ideal conductor of electricity. And this is English class! I asked the students if they discussed this in their science class, and unfortunately, they said no. They have been focused on “other” topics. We then pulled out a Periodic Table of Elements to look at other possibilities with gases, and why or why not this can replicated.  Science is now, and science is happening all around us, changing at breakneck speed.  While fundamentals are important, so too is the connection between theory and practice, between the “book” and what is being worked on in laboratories across the world now.

4) Producers vs. Consumers of Information. One of the articles students wished to explore further (students choose as a group where and what we read) was the recent announcement of expanding the Keystone Pipeline and which companies serve to benefit from this. This led us to exploring stock prices, market reactions to news, and specific data headings on a typical Yahoo Finance stock report. Hands went in the air as students sought to define P/E ratios, EPS, Dividend and Yield, etc. As a statistics or math teacher, these types of discussions, explanations, analysis of data, and then prediction of future trends is exactly the higher order thinking skills our students will need.


Finally, keeping up with current events makes a better teacher.  As professionals, we must be lifelong readers and help our students become engaged citizens of the world.  What is happening now matters.  We fail if we do not foster awareness and thinking about the here and now and how this may forecast events to come.

Service Learning – Social Media and Web-based Fund Raising

(12/3/16) - As we enter our second year of service learning between The Olympia Schools and Stanstead College, the students at Stanstead have devised two new ways to raise funds. The first is web-based, utilizing the school’s home page:


After learning about the project, donors can donate on this page: https://stansteadcollege.schoolforms.org/giving

The second, designed by one of the SC students, utilizes Facebook and social media: https://www.gofundme.com/service-learning-project

This is yet another powerful aspect of project design and project management: students learn innovative ways to raise money for their project.

Conference Presentation – Abstract

(10/29/16) - To those readers in Hanoi, if you have a chance to attend this, please do so. I will be presenting there. The abstract is as follows:

Creating Innovation in Students and Schools: Blended Learning & Interdisciplinary Studies

CHRISTOPHER M. MCDONALD, The Olympia Schools, Vietnam

Integrated studies and blended learning creates innovative teachers and students. Integrated studies happen in three tiers of organizational structure with an essential experiential piece–the capstone of the programming. Not in order of importance, integration can occur a) within an individual classroom, b) between separate classrooms, and c) within columns of grades (primary, secondary, and high school). And it should be followed by extended learning labs where skills are put to use in a real-world, relevant situations followed by the publication of these applications to a wider audience. This requires a rethinking of traditional organizational structures within schools and effective use of faculty planning time. In addition, training must accompany these projects, particularly with faculty who have little exposure with social media and on-line publishing platform. Using a dynamic design methodology, interdisciplinary courses require three steps. Successful courses exist because they are relevant to the real world, are real time, and pertain to student lives and interest. Thus, classes should begin each day with an examination of current events and derive lessons based upon the here and now. This progression can be summarized in three simple essential questions: 1) Where are we now? 2) How did we get here? 3) Where are we going? The current events provide lively discussion for the first five minutes of class. These happenings typically provoke the question “why”. This is the segue needed to probe into the second question–how did we get here? Content should focus on the “why” questions, and after training the students in question formulating techniques, teachers will have plenty of why questions that can be prioritized and can serve as guidance for subsequent lessons. 3-2-1 exit cards and K-W-L charts should be employed as well to track interest and assess learning. The curriculum may also be enriched through blended learning. Besides expanding the breadth of course offerings and e-books through free on-line resources such as EdX, on-line blended learning offers dual diploma possibilities and global projects. Case studies in Vietnam can be provided for further discussion for all aforementioned topics.

Thematic Global Progression – Vietnam's Progressive Education

(10/1/16) - My goal at The Olympia Schools has been to design a curriculum that begins the student experience with a focus on themselves, their families, their neighborhoods (grade 7 and 8).  As they mature and progress in this understanding, the horizons need to expand, and a school must provide this broader awareness.

Here is an example:  the manifestation of the grade 11 service-learning program last spring, a year-long project with students from Stanstead College, Quebec. The main technology used to connect students was Edmodo, a free app and posting resource. The video was created exclusively by the students.


The Olympia Schools Magazine – Opening Article

(8/3/15) - Dear Families and Students,

As mentioned at the opening meetings for all students, each year we pick a theme that helps to frame our overall curriculum and extracurricular activities. If you remember two years ago, we challenged students on a very personal level: do your best, do what is right, and care. Last year, we built upon this individual challenge to move students beyond self and to build the capacity to be leaders: global stewardship. Global stewardship can be defined as the commitment to the responsible management of world resources (natural, human, and economic) through informed leadership. As our students assumed leadership roles throughout all aspects of the school—class projects, athletic teams, clubs, musical performances, community service, and service learning activities—2016-17 offered us the opportunity to move this personal and leadership growth to the idea of sustainable development. How can one elicit change in one’s own homes, community, country, and world? How can we try to create the conditions for the planet to continue without destroying the social fabric and environmental conditions of the earth?

Utilizing the framework from UNESCO, http://en.unesco.org/sdgs, it is a natural progression in our yearly themes for students to apply what they have learned over the past two years to these “17 Goals to Transform our World”. Over the past two years, all students have been engaged in activities that resonate within these objectives. Many of our class trips involved spending time with and helping those communities lacking the financial resources for food, education, and basic necessities, such as electricity and clean water. Primary students learned about their own community in the Hanoi and Me program while cleaning up the environment. Our primary and middle school students have been involved in cultural exchanges with students from Korea, New Zealand, and the United States.

Last year, our SGO group engaged in year-long service learning project with students from Canada that resulted in building a wall for a rural elementary school in addition to recreational training for children at an orphanage. Our grade nine students made a classroom-to-classroom with students from a Cambodian International school and met together to discuss issues ranging from politics, border misunderstandings, and prejudice. These are just a few examples of our commitment to sustainable development.

This year will be no different; in fact, it will be taking what we have accomplished in the past and enhancing those projects to be greater in depth and breadth while launching new ones. For example, students will be competing by grade level to broaden awareness both in their homes and at school regarding recycling: plastic, metal, paper, and food composting. Recycle bins will populate the school and will be used within the science curriculum to teach students about materials and the process of recycling and its importance. Grade 9 students will be embarking in an interdisciplinary project within their History, Literature, and Geography classes that sends them to various locations throughout Vietnam as they discover Vietnam now, where it has been, and where it may be in the future. Grade 10 students will continue their work with students in Cambodia with a particular focus on climate change and how it affects both countries. SGO will continue stage 2 of the service-learning project with Canada. And our high school chemistry students are working with students in La Porte, Texas, regarding issues of sustainable energy sources and development in the United States and Vietnam. And so much more!

While the world faces many challenges, the Olympia students at all levels are in training to be problem identifiers and problem solvers. It is an exciting year to be a part of this vibrant and global community. I look forward to seeing the results of this “discovery learning” and applaud in advance the efforts of families in their support of our initiatives, the teachers in their willingness to be mentors and learners themselves, and the students who eagerly and enthusiastically engage the encounters ahead of them.

What Motivates Students?

(7/29/16) - Students remember teachers–not a curriculum, not a methodology, not a school per se. What they remember most is the teacher who was able to challenge them and the teacher who was able to help them accomplish what they never thought possible–even if this resulted in a bad grade. So how did the teacher do this? Is there a common “secret” that all great teachers possess? There is . . ..

Unmotivated students share common attributes. They find little to no success in their schooling, and they feel socially isolated. Face-to-face peer interactions have been replaced largely by social media. And when these students attend school, their isolation gets exacerbated further without peer and technological interactions. Video game makers and athletic coaches are acutely aware of these characteristics. Thus, they have incorporated a “90% feedback loop” of success, and they have made social interactions a staple of their respective programs.

The positive feedback loop depends upon two ingredients: frequent assessment with success and achievable goals. Video game makers allow its participants to succeed and advance levels based upon competency. Level jumps are not easy to achieve, but they are attainable, and players get encouragement, hints, and rewards as they get better and better. Feedback is immediate, and players soon learn how to master a task in order to move towards their respective goals. Coaches do the same as their athletes set individual and team objectives. Coaches critique, praise, and move players along in practices and competitions, which are frequent and focus on skill development. Players learn from mistakes and build towards winning games they may have lost. The focus is a 90% success rate with a 10% ‘dangling fruit’ to be attained with further practice.

Social success depends upon group dynamics and the team’s, or classroom’s, culture. Video games now involve multiple players from across the world. Players work together at tasks; they communicate regularly as they look to master problems and levels. While many may think video gamers play in isolation, nothing could be further from the truth: they develop and interact in a highly social network albeit this be an online community. And coaches dedicate much of their time – regardless of the sport being individual or team – to “team bonding,” where athletes learn to trust each other and work towards a greater cause. In high school, for example, teams will often have overnight travels even if this is not necessary in order to bring the group together. Coaches will have team meetings to set objectives and when times are hard, to strategize ways to overcome challenges. Both the gamers and the athletes become a part of an interdependent community.

So what motivates students in the classroom? Can we create a classroom culture that mirrors what video game designers and coaches know? We can, and we should. If we provide students with opportunities for success, if we provide frequent and positive feedback with attainable goals, if we show them progress, if we create a classroom “team” and engage students in interactive group projects and use social media, if students feel safe and encouraged by their peers, students will be motivated, and students will learn.

Why Teaching is a Calling, Not a Job

(6/20/16) - As the school year ends and both exhausted teachers and students plan for summer holiday and reflect upon the year, I share with you a note I received from a student yesterday. Sometimes, when we think the days are too long and the pay not enough, a note like this makes it all worthwhile. As you read this, some background on the profile of this student: new to the school this year, quiet and reserved, and what most would consider a “wall flower” in that the student blended in to the class most un-noticeably. I taught her every day for one hour; however, what is most revealing about this note is that Van (my wife) taught her for only three days for one hour while I was in Cambodia. It speaks to how teachers can have an impact, even within a small window of time:

“I just want to say that I’d like to thank you for everything you have done this year. It’s been a really new and great experience, being able to learn and study with you. I enjoyed your lessons a lot. Thank you.

“It seems like I’m going to move to another school next year, so I’m quite sad that we won’t see each other at school. Still, I won’t forget what you’ve taught me and everything we have been through. Thank you for being such an amazing teacher. Thank you for guiding and helping me throughout this year. Thank you for helping me improve my English. Thank you for teaching such interesting lessons…

“And I’d also like to say thank you to your wife, Ms. Vân, too. Even though I didn’t talk to her much, I really enjoyed the lessons which she covered for you when you were in Cambodia. She is such a cheerful and positive person, I really admire that about her. She somehow reminds me that life has both good and bad sides, not just sadness and misery. I’d like to thank her for that. In addition, she’s the first one to ever regard me as ‘beautiful’, and also my name, too. I was really touched when I heard those compliments for the first time in my life. Thank you very much !!

“I just hope that you will live a happy life forever and will always have fortunate things coming to you. I also hope that we’ll meet again.”

Do This One Thing to Help Kids Develop Grit

(6/23/16) - Here is the full article written by Silvia Ascarelli for MarketWatch. I applaud her discussing this topic in a business forum; tt has applications in all aspects of student and adult development.

Grit, the dictionary says, is defined as having courage and resolve.

Angela Duckworth says it’s doing hard things you care about, or a mix of passion and perseverance.

The University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and author of the recently published book “Grit” has created a five-point scale using responses to 10 statements to determine people’s level of grit.

You claim you don’t have a passion? Sometimes, Duckworth says, it’s hard to spot in yourself what might be obvious to others. In her book, she discusses a technique attributed to Warren Buffett that she says can help set priorities and highlight a passion.

Here’s how it works: Write a list of 25 (!) goals. Decide which are your top five. Then discipline yourself to avoid the remaining 20 because they’re just distracting you from what’s most important. Duckworth tweaked it by lumping together those that serve a common purpose — in her case helping kids achieve and thrive — to help spot a theme.

She spoke with MarketWatch about finding a passion and developing perseverance in both children and adults. And, yes, she gives you permission to quit — just not on something you care about. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Q: How can an adult who has no passion in or outside of work learn grit?

A: Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski had an experiment at Google where people were randomly assigned to craft their own job. Without changing your job, you can look for ways to make it more interesting and meaningful. What do I find interesting? How can I do more of it in my job? And what things do I find completely tedious and not aligned with my values? Can I get someone else on my team who likes it to do it?

It sounds a little naive and pie in the sky. But weeks later, people were more satisfied in their jobs through this tiny intervention and their managers said they performed better.

Q: What’s your advice for developing grit in children?

A: Kids need choice. There’s this really awesome theory of human motivation — that human beings all want three things. One is to be competent, one is to belong, and one is be free, as in to have choice, to not be told what to do but to choose what to do. Kids will never fully develop a passion for something unless at some point and in some way they feel they have chosen what they’re doing as opposed to having it chosen for them.

For my own kids, I gave them choice as soon as they were in kindergarten. They could choose something that was hard, in that it needed to be practiced, so they could learn to practice, practice. It wasn’t an infinite list. I did impose a discipline, which is to say you don’t get to quit in the middle. I did make them finish the semester.

Q: How did you come up with that?

A: I knew that my kids needed choice and autonomy. But I also knew that children who are 5 years old are not going to finish hard things or submit themselves to a hard thing or any practice. Children are not born knowing how to deal with frustration.

Q: What do you think of that Princeton professor’s CV of failure?

A: I thought it was so awesome. What do we do when we show each other not only our resume, but the photos we post on Facebook? We show people our polished, best self. It’s just the highlight roll. What I loved about that resume is that it gives the whole story. Some of the things we do are great, but they often have these iterations that are not great. We screw up sometimes. We get rejected.

Q: How can companies hire for grit?

A: One thing is look for evidence that someone has been persevering and is passionate about something. Maybe it’s not what you’re hiring them for, especially if it’s a 22-year-old. I know a lot of executives, very successful ones, who look for evidence of grit through being a varsity athlete. You can make an educated guess that the person knows how to practice, know how to lose the game and come back for the next one, that they know how to sustain interest in something for years, they might have a sense of purpose broader than themselves. It’s not just sports; it can be other things. If you looked at my college resume, there is no sports, but I had a lot of continuity and accomplishment in community service.

Q: The hardest part may be learning to pick yourself back up.

A: It’s hard, don’t you think? There’s something about taking path of least resistance that makes a lot of sense. But at the same time we have to figure out which things in life are worth struggling through.There is this kind of discomfort you have to have to get better at things, and that’s part of grit. If you’re never able to tolerate a little bit of pain and discomfort, you’ll never get better.

Q: Why is this a science? It sounds like common sense.

A: If it were easy to be gritty and we didn’t need anyone’s help, that would be great. But I still find how to be gritty a question that I can’t even fully answer myself and I’ve been studying it for years and years and been trying to do it personally for more years than I’ve been studying it.

Building Bridges Project

(4/28/16) - Building Bridges Project: Cambodian and Vietnamese Students

Last week, a group of 9th grade students from Hanoi, Vietnam, met up with a group of 9th and 10th grade students in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Over a two day period, they worked together in groups to research and present about current issues between the countries, to offer solutions, and to form action plans. In addition, they socialized through shopping, dining, bowling, and swimming as ways to get to know each other. So what was the purpose here? What did we accomplish? How can we measure growth?

Let’s back up to establish the framework. For the students in Hanoi, my students, we studied Cambodia in the first term. Thus, this was an actualization or bringing to life historical texts to the modern day in a tangible, palpable way. In addition, we studied the Vietnam-American conflict as well as the border disputes and invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. We needed to move the time frame to the present and shift thoughts towards the future and creative solutions. Thus, before we even boarded the plane for Saigon, students revisited our work in the first term, and they conducted new research about the two countries, from immigration issues, border disputes, and prejudice to modern economic and geopolitical challenges. Using Google classroom, students posted ideas and thoughts about the project in advance of our arrival.

Many of these students have never traveled outside of Hanoi; thus, this also served as a learning opportunity regarding personal finance and budgeting, working and moving as a group from buses, taxis, and airplanes to rally points. setting alarms, and meeting at specified times and places. Students kept track of passports, visas, currency, and baggage limits. So the journey served a dual purpose of educating students in “soft skills” required in travel. And for some, based upon their final blogs about the entire experience, this was some of the most poignant learning and growth.

I can continue here about all the higher order academic learning exhibited by both groups of students, for the Vietnamese students made an additional stop along the way at the Cu Chi tunnels, a historical battlefield preserved to show the sacrifices made during the American war. But as educators, you know all of this. Suffice it to say, the expressions on their faces, their attentiveness, and comments like “I never knew this–I never would have made it” demonstrated the power of a site visit versus a textbook. As we made our way into Cambodia and into our makeshift model UN workshop, the idealism and desire to make change and make the worlds of Vietnam and Cambodia better places filled the room. Idea after idea about “how to fix the problem” and prepare a peaceful future for all spilled over from the afternoon into the early evening hours. As an educator of many years, this was my eureka moment! Debriefing on the way home, students were already planning the next steps: how can we put our ideas into action plans? How can we raise funds to include all who want to help? Ah, sustained project management that will evolve into service learning!

The next step will be for students to collaborate on-line and propose an action plan, and then through student “backwards design”, the stages of preparation and execution will begin. Phase 2 of this project will be launched during the next academic year during term 2 or 3.

“Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situations of experience its own full and unique meaning” (John Dewey).

Moving with Messiness

(3/11/16) - Moving with Messiness: Letting Mistakes Happen, then Reflection, then Correction

On an institutional level, my main challenge this year has been teaching board members, fellow administrators, and teachers about the messiness of student learning. Not only does it occur at different rates and in different ways, but it also involves fluctuations and false-positives. I provide you a case study.

At the beginning of this year, we launched a student service-learning initiative across the globe, connecting students in Vietnam with students in Canada. The idea was simple: students were to identify an area of need (this year it is in Vietnam), figure a way to help that need, and execute the plan. Essentially, project design and project management. A time line was set for when the Canadian students would arrive (March 30), and the plan began. My role was simply to provide advice (when asked), keep the process moving with weekly meetings where I could proffer questions about the process, and help with logistics. Rather than detail all of the missteps in this process, students are down to the wire now with fund raising, research into how to build a wall (which was their idea to help a school), and other final preparations. We shall see how it all comes together in a few weeks.

But my point is this: I spent most of my time explaining to my colleagues the value of this experience for the students. They learned from each stumble along the way, from overestimating how much money they could raise and changing targets multiple times due to bureaucracy and “unreliable” contacts to improper planning that resulted in miscommunication with partners and cancelled trips. Each stumble was discussed and processed for future use. But for my colleagues, they could “see” nothing. Where is the product? Why is it taking so long? What do you have to show for all this time and effort? Well, as all scientists know, experiments often show us more when they fail rather than when they succeed, and such is the case with student learning, particularly as it applies to a real-world experience such as project management (and attempting to do this via Edmodo across continents).

In early April, the “product” will occur, and it will be shared. But even if the wall collapses, literally, because of student error in construction, to me, this is simply the tip of the iceberg–its beauty of learning lies in what cannot be seen, that process of messiness where growth has occurred.

Leveraging University Resources: a Win-Win

(12/12/15)  - After several university internships with students from my alma mater and former schools and most recently with the University of Southern Cross in Australia, I have come to a realization that schools are underusing the enrichment possibilities in institution-to-institution exchanges. Bear with me as I explain the epiphany.

This past summer I mobilized relationships from my previous high schools where I taught as well as colleges where I have developed some educational bridges for interns and student teachers. The result was a variety of young teachers who injected idealism and the newest practices from schools of education into our curriculum and into interactions with our students and faculty in addition to infusing their own humanity and cultural diversity into faculty room conversation and interactions with students. As if this isn’t reason enough to pursue these avenues, the cost for the school was minimal and allowed us to know the candidates as well as for them to know us to determine if a fit was possible.

Recently, we shared time and space with the University of Southern Cross in Australia, and they visited and team taught with our teachers for several days. The result? First and foremost, our students benefited from eager and engaging teachers from a new land. Second, our teachers had the opportunity to interact and learn from a group of highly skilled educators. Third, it enhanced the diversity of our community by introducing some new global citizens. And finally, it provided me with yet another avenue of recruitment for new and diverse teachers at no cost.

In sum, engaging with schools of education benefits both parties, and it is an underutilized strategic plan for most Heads of Schools (in my experience). I encourage and will facilitate more and more of these exchanges and interactions as we seek to bring the most meaningful and substantial education to students; there is a world that awaits them and us to make this possible and meaningful for all involved in the process.

Service Learning, from Quebec to Hanoi

(11/12/15) - With our “Blended Learning and Innovative Teaching” symposium rapidly approaching, I want to share our global service learning plan that has been put into action in September between Stanstead College in Quebec and the Olympia Schools in Hanoi. While this is by no means the only way to engage institutions and students in collaborative, curriculum-based learning, it seems to be a way that, so far, has been working. I also thank Jessica Cambell for ideas she shared on this process, and I have referenced some of her thoughts as well in the ideas that follow. To quote Jessica, which mirrors our plan: “Our goal was to create an educational model in which students’ passions are the driving force, empowering them as global citizens. While we have limited time to cover required curriculum, we are committed to finding ways of embedding curriculum in ‘real-life’ applications within the project.”


Generate Excitement


As students research a topic and discover issues facing local communities (this year that focus will be in northern Vietnam while next year the focus will shift to Canada with SC students targeting the project), their passion is sparked. They delve into their research and start thinking critically and planning about how they as individuals, and how their group can affect change. We begin assigning roles within the group for the various aspects of project management, from the research teams to the field assessment teams to the fund raising team, etc..


Provincial Partners


Key to making this a meaningful experience is finding and engaging with community partners, which is essential in Vietnam in that without government support and approval, nothing can be done. Students learn early off how to “network”, and they begin to make contact with various governmental agencies in the provinces to secure approval for potential projects. “Partnerships are mutually beneficial — the partners are inspired in working with students, and their involvement adds another level of wisdom to assist in research and opportunities for enhancing the project learning and impact.”


Mapping the Road and Informing Communities


As the groups of students zero in on the project, school community awareness needs to occur before fund-raising plans go into action. Thus, students on both sides of the ocean need to prepare community awareness presentations that will be followed up by targeted fund raising activities. In our case, students initially targeted the building of a bridge to help bring school children closer to their school. However, after reaching out to the government officials, the project exceeded the expected fund raising target. Students informed each other of this discovery and moved to a Plan B, which is teaching a school to be sustainable farmers so that children can have fresh food (vegetation and meat) on a daily basis.


Global Citizenship and Curriculum-based Learning


The direct curricular aspect now swings into action (again, this has already been occurring indirectly with the aforementioned steps required to move the project along). My favorite questions from the group: “I don’t know anything about this. How do we build a chicken coup? a pig pen? How much will it cost to buy these animals? Where do we get them?” These are only a few! But the students have no idea here, and this provides the avenue into the learning components of sustainable farming, construction and engineering, zoology, etc.. It evolves into a truly interdisciplinary, real-world project.


At this point, we are in the information and fund raising stage. By January, we will have made a site visit and begin planning the solutions to the questions posed in the last paragraph. At the end of April, Stanstead College students will join us, and the students will execute the project on the ground in a one week. At the completion, both groups will publish a report on the project, about its trials and tribulations, and provide this report to the government as well as disseminate the information in the school and parent community as to the result of their charitable givings.




Student passion creates empowered leaders who make change, and they experience the “project process”–all aspects of it. As an educator, nothing is more fulfilling than to see this growth in global awareness, empathy, and determination in teenagers as they become more aware of who they are and how they fit into this world.

Montessori plus PBL plus Korea plus USA plus blended learning = ?

(10/19/15) - This past Friday I spent the day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with colleagues of mine discussing how to create the best education possible for students. While our conversation focused primarily on middle and high school, the strategies we processed can most certainly be applied to the elementary level. The model, we decided, focuses on a few fundamental premises:

1) student interest and choice

2) fundamental skill development in mathematics and reading

3) real-world applications

4) real time

While the first three have been staples of effective curriculum no matter what the umbrella (AP, IB, Montessori, 21st century, etc.), the fourth element, to me, seems the one missing and/or relegated to a second tier of importance. However, particularly in middle and high school, it needs to be elevated as the lead-off hitter in every classroom. So how would this take shape? Let me talk about the daily schedule first, and then I will move to afternoon “real time”!

First, the morning begins with physical education. I won’t pause here for the reasoning as to why the day should begin this way (and I would include teachers as well in my ideal school), but suffice it to say that there is enough research to support this placement. Next, would be some fun with “skill and drill”, or brain training, in the fields of mathematics and reading. I can dedicate another whole article to how to make these activities enriching and effective (cheese on the broccoli), but this would be the time to solidify the fundamentals in engaging ways. And the timing of these activities could rotate with the “real time” afternoon–in fact, it would be best to switch these activities around (except the PE) in order to maximize the biorhythms of the student learners, which can vary.

Now, the “real time”. All one needs to do is to open the BBC world page or CNN news to find ample material in the worlds of space, technology, environment, scientific discovery, finance, geo-politics, etc., to find fodder for class discussion and learning. For example, today an article in Technology and Business from the BBC reads “Why is Ford using ostrich feathers?” One can structure the afternoon science and discovery lessons by theme (for example, grade 9 and 10 focuses on issues in Biology and Chemistry, and grades 11 and 12 focuses on Physics and Engineering while grades 6 to 9 focus on simple machines and systems, e.g. ecosystem, solar system, etc.). Students explore the science and knowledge needed to answer essential questions posed by the challenges of today.

Thus, a school can accomplish the “core curriculum” through thematic framing while at the same time maximizing student engagement in the real world, about the real world, and for the real world–live! This is how we get students to create, to invent, to innovate–by placing them in the real world with active imaginations to think about where they are, how they got there, and where they, we, may be going.

Revamping Courses for 21st Century Skills – Do Asapp!

(9/21/15) - Currently, I am completing the design of our 9th grade Humanities course in The Olympia School’s X-cel program, which is a blended program in every sense. Building upon the foundation of relevancy education through current events, the program immerses students in the most challenging elements of global citizenship in a graduated and systematic way.

Beginning in the 9th grade year, students will begin using blended educational resources (e-books, videos, open-source information, blogs, e-journals, Google classroom, etc.). These classes travel the globe as students explore current events and culture geographically based upon their interest. While we share some common readings and points of discussion, students are encouraged to follow their interests, whether those be the scientific discoveries of France or genocide in Cambodia. Reading will be regional in selection and will involve all genres, from informational texts to the classic novel. Students assessments vary and reflect Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Working as teams and in the project-based learning mode, Term 1 involves a group project. Term 2 focuses on more traditional assessment, which will require research, documentation, and extrapolation. Term 3 is a celebration of creative learning where students will “show” what they have learned in a school-wide Creative Learning Showcase, and in Term 4, students focus on meta-cognitive reflection with a portfolio review. (See http://www.prezi.com for my plan for comprehensive assessment by term at TOS). Themes and areas of study are as follows:

Essential Questions: Where are we now? How did we get here? Where will be going? Why?

Methodology: DOASAPP™

Discover, Organize, Analyze, Synthesize, Authenticate, Predict, Publish

Global Dynamics I—grade 9; Theme: Rising Asia of the 21st Century; Areas: Asia, Oceania

Global Dynamics II–grade 10; Theme: The origins of Humanity; Areas: Africa, Middle East, Europe

Global Dynamics III–grade 11; Theme: New Frontiers; Areas: The Americas

Advanced Placement (AP) Literature–grade 12 ; Theme: A Global Order; Areas: All

Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone Project: coming in 2016-17

In addition, students ambassadors will be working collaboratively in a service learning experience in May where students will produce authentic and publishable projects with our international partners. More on this in my next post!

What Technology Does Not Do

(8/18/15) - Despite the awards, the bonus points, the rankings, and all the other virtual enticements used to generate enthusiasm, for most students, moving through on-line courses and/or on-line enhancement/enrichment programs lack one essential ingredient: the human being to help motivate them throughout the process, which can take prolonged time to complete.

Technology does offer novel ways to present information with audio, visual, and in some cases, dimensional stimulation. Like caffeine or sugar, the immediate impact is noticeable; students engage and complete tasks with zest.  And, depending upon the program, this motivation varies in longevity from a single vocabulary task to an entire e-book chapter in a math class. But for the longer tasks spanning a semester or full academic year in length, the novelty of these “bells and whistles” recedes, and what is needed is grit, discipline, and the human touch to keep the petal to the metal and encouragement to keep students on task even when “they don’t feel like it” and/or do not see the end game.

Enter the teacher-coach.  Unlike in the past where the teacher was the master of knowledge, the role of the teacher has changed significantly.  Now, the teacher must be the master of exploration:  how can I navigate the informational waters with my students and propel them in the most valid and reliable direction?  How can I motivate my students to stay the course despite the unpredictable tempest they may encounter and/or the mundane stretches of calm and barren ocean?

In the ideal world, hiring a teacher that is both a master of content and a master of navigation and motivation is my first priority.  In the real world, this constitutes a small number, particularly in the realm of science and math.  Thus, with technology as a tool and provider of information and knowledge, I need educators that can guide and motivate; this becomes a higher priority for me than content knowledge with all other factors being equal.  Technology provides us with the ship to sail into the world of the unforeseen, and this ship is powerful and capable of remarkable feats.  It has, to a large extent, replaced the need for the knowledge-based lecturer.  Yet it still needs a captain that can lead and inspire through the tempest and the mundane . . . something auto-pilot has yet been able to accomplish.

Interdisciplinary Course Creation in 3 steps

(July 27, 2015) - Over the past decade, I have created interdisciplinary courses both in humanities and in the sciences. At the Cranbrook Schools, the most popular senior elective involved music, art, history, and English. It examined the 1960’s in Vietnam and in America from both perspectives. At Shrine Catholic Schools, I launched a STEM class in conjunction with William Beaumont Hospital that blended Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. At the Winchendon School and now at the Olympia Schools, I continue creating and teaching a “Global Dynamics” pathway that over the course of four years traverses the globe in terms of humanities content–art, music, history, English, philosophy, political science, religion, etc..

My colleagues have often asked for curriculum maps of these courses, and I readily share them with one disclaimer: as soon as you receive them, they are outdated in terms of content. The skill development and sequencing remains, but each year the content changes due to two primary variables: current events and student interest. Successful courses exist because they are relevant to the real world, are real time, and they pertain to student lives and interest. Thus, as a class, we begin each day with an examination of current events and derive lessons based upon the here and now. I can sum up our progression in three simple essential questions:

1) Where are we now?

2) How did we get here?

3) Where are we going?

The current events provide lively discussion for the first five minutes of class. These happenings typically provoke the question “why”. This is the segue needed to probe into the second questions–how did we get here? Your content should focus on the “why” questions, and after training the students in question formulating techniques, you will have a whiteboard full of why questions that can be prioritized. This is the fodder for content design. 3-2-1 exit cards and K-W-L charts should be employed as well to track interest and learning. And question 3), which often serves as a summative exam-type question, must be provided at the beginning of the course so as to frame all of the learning. It may evolve into an essay, a group project, a TED talk, or whatever else you have in mind.  For example, in our studies of Europe, the 3) question read as follows: Will the European Union exist in its current state 10 years from now? Why? Why not? Argue using data acquired from your learning this term using effective argumentative rhetoric. This serves to frame the content, which will often be diverse and fragmented, and it allows the students a beacon to navigate the informational waters.

So have at it! The most enjoyable part of this process–called dynamic course design–is the learning and growth you have as the teacher. It is discovery learning employed by all!

5 Staples for Effective Classrooms – Research-Based

(July 6, 2015) - While many educational institutions seek the newest innovations, which can enhance learning if based upon sound research and if it “fits” with the unique needs of the students and culture of the school, it is important to focus on the staples that underlie effective teaching–the fundamentals, if you will. Based upon the research of John Hattie, who spent 15 years compiling data on student achievement and best practices, we can derive five commonalities employed by the teachers. While for the experienced teacher these may be second nature, it is prudent to remind ourselves of these practices as the new school year begins. They will presented and emphasized to all Olympia Schools teachers as we begin the 2015-16 school year. Many of them, including meta-cognitive awareness and assessment practices, have already been designed into our term evaluations as we vary the type of assessment being used at each quarter end. Thank you, Rebecca Alber, for the concise summary:

1. Teacher Clarity: When a teacher begins a new unit of study or project with students, she clarifies the purpose and learning goals, and provides explicit criteria on how students can be successful. It’s ideal to also present models or examples to students so they can see what the end product looks like.

2. Classroom Discussion: Teachers need to frequently step offstage and facilitate entire class discussion. This allows students to learn from each other. It’s also a great opportunity for teachers to formatively assess (through observation) how well students are grasping new content and concepts.

3. Feedback: How do learners know they are moving forward without steady, consistent feedback? They often won’t. Along with individual feedback (written or verbal), teachers need to provide whole-group feedback on patterns they see in the collective class’ growth and areas of need. Students also need to be given opportunities to provide feedback to the teacher so that she can adjust the learning process, materials, and instruction accordingly.

4. Formative Assessments: In order to provide students with effective and accurate feedback, teachers need to assess frequently and routinely where students are in relation to the unit of study’s learning goals or end product (summative assessment). Hattie recommends that teachers spend the same amount of time on formative evaluation as they do on summative assessment.

5. Metacognitive Strategies: Students are given opportunities to plan and organize, monitor their own work, direct their own learning, and to self-reflect along the way. When we provide students with time and space to be aware of their own knowledge and their own thinking, student ownership increases. And research shows that metacognition can be taught.

Collaborating with Colleagues

Great teachers are earnest learners. Spend some time with a colleague, or two or three, and talk about what each of these research-based, best classroom practices looks like in the classroom. Discuss each one in the context of your unique learning environment: who your students are, what they need, what they already know, etc.

Teaching Grit? How? Can Schools Do it?

(May 3, 2015) - The education world is buzzing about this concept now labelled “grit”, for the old school, and “resilience”, for those subscribed to Wagner’s “Seven Survival Skills” and its postscript and/or the 21st Century Skills revisionists.  Edutopia has dedicated numerous blogs to it, and teachers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and parents have written scholarly articles and posted blogs describing its importance and how to generate it in students.  In my twenty plus years in the classrooms of public, parochial, and private schools in the United States and Vietnam and working with families and students from the entire spectrum of wealth, family structures, ethnic diversity, and demographics (from inner city to small town, from the midwest to the east coast to across the Pacific Ocean), I have concluded that schools can play a significant part in the generation of resilience in a student. This part can only work if two other parts are influenced:  reinforcement of work ethic and tasks that create this at home, and sustained competitive activities in extracurricular interests from a young age.  As I reflect upon my “grittiest” students throughout the years, they all share these three components in equal weighting.

Much has been written about how school’s can improve the resilience of students in the classroom and in the school community.  This can only work if the culture of the school reinforces this growth mindset in all of its policies and practices, at the macro level down to the micro level of the individual classroom assignments.  Teachers and administrators need to discuss with students what work ethic is, why it is important, reward it appropriately, and model it themselves in all aspects of the school culture.  For more specific strategies for this cultural creation, I recommend the Edutopia pieces dedicated to these tactical details.

Working in conjunction with schools, parents need to reinforce the practices being exerted by the schools with their own expectations.  Early off in the academic year, school’s should have a parent meeting to discuss this very topic.  Some parents may not have the knowledge and/or the skills to create an environment of resilience at home.  Some parents may be doing exactly what is needed, and such meetings can only serve to reinforce their practices.  Parents sharing with parents  about what they do at home and in their daily routines is the best route of resilience education for this aspect of childhood development.  Schools need to be proactive and encouraging of these meetings.  Ideas such as daily chores being completed well (and if not, repeated until quality standards are met), reading/thinking tasks for set amounts of time, and open discussions about the importance of learning from mistakes and trying again–living the story of The Little Engine That Could–are some of the ideas that parents of gritty kids have shared with me over the years.

Finally, from the time a child can handle an instrument, learn to play checkers or chess, kick a ball, or draw/paint a picture, opportunities need to be provided to refine these skills–and compete with them.  As children develop at different rates, this may be as early as five years old or as late as the second grade.  Regardless of when this passion is discovered, it needs to be fed with practice and play.  I say practice and play in that both components are necessary in the development of grit:  practicing every day for x amount of time and then putting those skills to the test in some sort of regular competition.  Whether the competition results in a “win or loss” is initially insignificant.  The game itself will provide conversation fodder (which must be followed up by a parent or coach or teacher) about what went well, what didn’t go so well, and strategies to employ to improve.  This produces grit!

My conclusion simply stated is that all three components of resilience education is necessary to produce the kind of work ethic, determination, and drive needed not only for academic success, but success in life.  Schools can play a key part in the environmental construction of this attitude, both at home within the parent community and away from home in the academic and extracurricular climate of the institution itself.  This must be the highest priority for any educational strategic plan.

What’s Worth Learning In School?

(March 11, 2015) - David Perkins, author of Making Learning Whole, one of my favorite professional development texts for teachers, has released a book:  Future Wise. Below is a preview, and it certainly is on my short list of new reads.

What’s Worth Learning in School?

By Lory Hough

We teach a lot that isn’t going to matter, in a significant way, in students’ lives, writes Professor David Perkins in his new book, “Future Wise.” There’s also much we aren’t teaching that would be a better return on investment.

Professor David Perkins likes to tell this story: Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was getting on a train. One of his sandals slipped off and fell to the ground. The train was moving, and there was no time to go back. Without hesitation, Gandhi took off his second sandal and threw it toward the first. Asked by his colleague why he did that, he said one sandal wouldn’t do him any good, but two would certainly help someone else.

As Perkins writes in his new book, Future Wise, “People cherish the story as a marvelous example of a charitable act. And so it is, on a small scale, seizing a singular moment.”

But as he also points out, and as he told an audience at the Future of Learning institute held this past summer at the Ed School, it was more than that: It was also a knowledgeable act. By throwing that sandal, Gandhi had two important insights: He knew what people in the world needed, and he knew what to let go of.

Educators, Perkins says, need to embrace these same insights. They need to start asking themselves what he considers to be one of the most important questions in education: What’s worth learning in school?

What’s worth learning in school? It’s a question that students have been lobbing at teachers for years, in a slightly different form.

“In the back of the class, there’s that idly waving hand,” Perkins writes. “You’ve been teaching long enough to be pretty sure that hand is going to go up as soon as you got started on this topic, and so it does, with an annoying indolence. All right. You gesture toward the hand, Let’s hear it.

“The student: ‘Why do we need to know this?’”

As a teacher, Perkins says he hates that question. Teachers work hard at what they do, and the question is disrespectful. Yet, he admits, the question is actually a good one — an “uppity version” of what’s worth learning in school. (It’s also one he admits having asked once or twice himself.)

“When that ballistic missile comes from the back of the room, it’s a good reminder that the question doesn’t just belong to state school boards, authors of textbooks, writers of curriculum standards, and other elite,” he says. “It’s on the minds of our students.”

That’s why Perkins decided to devote an entire book, and many lectures and discussions, to how that question gets answered.

These days, he says we teach a lot that isn’t going to matter, in a significant way, in students’ lives. There’s also much we aren’t teaching that would be a better return on investment. As a result, as educators, “we have a somewhat quiet crisis of content,” Perkins writes, “quiet not for utter lack of voices but because other concerns in education tend to muffle them.” These other concerns are what he calls rival learning agendas: information, achievement, and expertise.

INFORMATION: For starters, most education has become a mastery of a very large body of information, even if it’s not what Perkins calls lifeworthy — likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.

“It’s nice to know things. I like to know things. You like to know things,” Perkins says. “But there are issues of balance, particularly in the digital age. The information in textbooks is not necessarily what you need or would like to have at your fingertips.” Instead, even though most people would say that education should prepare you for life, much of what is offered in schools doesn’t work in that direction, Perkins says. Educators are “fixated” on building up students’ reservoirs of knowledge, often because we default to what has always been done.

“Conventional curriculum is chained to the bicycle rack,” he says. “It sits solidly in the minds of parents: ‘I learned that. Why aren’t my children learning it?’ The enormous investment in textbooks and the cost of revising them gives familiar elements of the curriculum a longer life span than they might perhaps deserve. Curriculum suffers from something of a crowded garage effect: It generally seems safer and easier to keep the old bicycle around than to throw it out.”

As a result, “the lifeworthiness of the multitudinous facts and ideas in the typical curriculum is spotty,” he says. “It seems not to have been thought through very carefully.”

And simply having a vast reservoir of knowledge isn’t helpful if it’s not being used. “Knowledge is for going somewhere,” Perkins says, not just for accumulating. But too often, we tend to focus on short-term successes — scoring well on a quiz, acing a spelling test. Unfortunately all of that test knowledge, all of that accumulated knowledge we thought was worth knowing, becomes useless if not used.

“The hard fact is that our minds hold on only to knowledge we have occasion to use in some corner of our lives,” Perkins writes. “Overwhelmingly, knowledge unused is forgotten. It’s gone.”

Here’s where, during the Future of Learning session, Perkins asked the audience to think about something they learned during the first dozen years of schooling that really matters in their lives today, beyond basics like learning to read and not including specialty professional skills.

“The frightening thing when I have these conversations is how hard it is for people to answer,” he says. “I find that frightening. It also says a lot about the current state of education.”

Take mitosis, the process of cell division. During the Future session, he asked everyone in the audience — hundreds of people — to raise their hands if they had studied mitosis in high school. Pretty much every hand went up. He asked how many people remember, basically, what it is. About half went up. He then asked how many have used their knowledge of mitosis in the last 10 years. One hand went up.

Perkins acknowledged that he personally finds mitosis fascinating and stressed that with learning, there should always be room for passion, “but in terms of generalized education and what everyone should learn, something like mitosis doesn’t score well.”

ACHIEVEMENT: Just as educators are pushing students to build a huge reservoir of knowledge, they are also focused on having students master material, sometimes at the expense of relevance. This happens, for example, with the achievement gap. While Perkins is quick to say that the achievement gap is a highly important problem that should be taken seriously, in general, he says, “achievement” is about mastering a topic and less about providing lifeworthy content. The achievement gap asks if students are achieving X. Instead, it might be more useful to look at the relevance gap, which asks if X is going to matter to the lives students are likely to lead.

“If X is a good mastery of reading and writing, both questions earn a big yes!” Perkins says. “Skilled, fluent, and engaged reading and writing mark both a challenging gap and a high-payoff attainment. That knowledge goes somewhere. However, if X is quadratic equations, the answers don’t match. Mastering quadratic equations is challenging, but those equations are not so lifeworthy.” Perkins says we can fill in X with thousands of topics that make up the typical curriculum, such as geography. Students are drilled to remember state capitals and major rivers and rewarded as “achieving” when they score well. And while it’s nice and sometimes useful to know those things, Perkins argues that instead, knowing how the location of rivers and harbors and other features of the land have been shaped and continue to shape the course of history offers more in terms of lifelong usefulness — more so than “a bag full of facts. All that talk about achievement leaves little room for discussing what’s being achieved.”

EXPERTISE: And then there’s what Perkins calls “the Holy Grail” of learning in school: becoming an expert. The typical math curriculum is a good example of how we want learners to move toward expertise in a subject, with little regard for usefulness. Arithmetic leads to algebra, including many “hardly used twists and turns” of advanced algebra, then to geometry and calculus, “an entire subject that hardly anyone ever uses,” Perkins writes.

Unfortunately, if someone questions whether this expertise serves students well and instead suggests more life-relevant topics, Perkins says the common reaction is: “We’re sacrificing rigor!” But that doesn’t have to be the case. Instead of building during the first 12 years of schooling toward expertise in an advanced topic like calculus that hardly ever comes up in our lives, Perkins says students can instead become “expert amateurs” in something like statistics — a rigorous topic that is also used in daily life. In fact, expert amateurism works great, he says, in most of what we do in our lives — raising children, filing taxes, appreciating art, understanding insurance rates, or dealing with our own health care.

Perkins is very clear that expertise in a specific field is not bad; in fact, he encourages it and assumes it will happen at the college or university level. But he advocates that in today’s world, younger students need to first master the fundamentals of key learning and then decide where they want to specialize.

So we come back to the question: What is worth learning? In his book, Perkins promises that he is not going to answer that question, at least not in a tidy way. There’s no list of 1,000 things we must know or teach. Perkins says there would be no way to create a definitive list because there are lots of things worth learning at any given time or for a specialized career or even simply because we enjoy learning.

Instead, he does know that the encyclopedic approach to learning that happens in most schools that focuses primarily on achievement and expertise doesn’t make sense.

“The fixation on the heap of information in the textbooks is itself part of the problem because the world we are educating learners for is something of a moving target,” he says.

Historically, the first 12 or so years of schooling have focused on educating for the known, “the tried and true, the established canon,” he writes. “This made very good sense in the many periods and places where most children’s lives were likely to be more or less like their parents’ lives. However, wagering that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday does not seem to be a very good bet today. Perhaps we need a different vision of education, a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.”

And to do that, Perkins says we need to rethink what’s worth learning and what’s worth letting go of — in a radical way.

“We do kind of need to blow up the system and start fresh,” he says. “Well, maybe not blow up the whole thing, but at least some corners.”

One of those corners is the drive to educate through high-stakes testing, he says.

“It’s clear that NCLB has not worked well,” with pressures on teachers and students, sometimes leading to instances of cheating and maneuvering. With high-stakes testing, he says, there’s a fixation on “summative” versus “formative” assessment — evaluating students’ mastery of material with exams and final projects (achievements) versus providing ongoing feedback that can improve learning. “You end up shooting for the Big contest, the Big test, at the end of the year,” he says. “It’s a distortion.” As a result, “students are asked to learn a great deal for the class and for the test that likely has no role in the lives they will live — that is, a great deal that simply is not likely to come up again for them in a meaningful way.”

Perkins stresses that he isn’t taking a stance against assessment, which he says is critical for learning. Instead, “it’s more about how assessment is made. This is a vote for a richer form of achievement.”

To be fair, he says, the assessment “game” as it’s usually played in education seems perfectly reasonable — at first. Tests “are socially pretty efficient. You can distribute them widely and score them efficiently,” he says. “We give those tests. We evaluate those tests. But that makes for shallow learning and understanding. … You cram to do well on the test but may not have the understanding. It unravels.”

Instead, we should be moving away from an understanding of something — the information on the test, the list of state capitals — to an understanding with something. With the latter, he says, students are able to then make connections to other things. For example, rather than just learning facts about the French Revolution, students should learn about the French Revolution as a way to understand issues like world conflict or poverty or the struggle between church and state. Without those connections, Perkins says he’s not surprised that so many people have trouble naming things they learned early on that still have meaning today or that disengaged students are raising their hands, asking why they need to know something.

“And students are completely right,” he says. “First-graders are very interested [in school], but over time, engagement slides and slides. There are often multiple reasons why, but one is that they don’t see the relevance of what they are learning. They don’t see how it serves their lives.”

Growing up in Farmington, Maine, a small town with just under 5,000 residents, Perkins remembers it feeling safe and peaceful, a great place to come of age. He also remembers being bored with school through eighth grade.

“I got excited in high school when I encountered a range of topics treated at a higher level,” he says. But, he acknowledges, he was probably unique. “I was lucky, I think, in that I’m not so much the kind of person that Future Wise was written for. I like a lot of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Algebra, history — I can really get into those things. I don’t have to ask myself how is this going to be enlightening my life.”

Still, despite his own experience, he says that in the bigger picture of learning, we need to remember Gandhi.

“As the train started up and Gandhi tossed down his second sandal, he showed wisdom about what to keep and what to let go of,” Perkins says. “Those are both central questions for education as we choose for today’s learners the sandals they need for tomorrow’s journey.”

The Olympia Difference (Prezi style)

(March 10, 2015) - Messaging about how your school differs from the others and how these differences are more beneficial to students and families who attend your school is a challenge for every enrollment office and Head of School. Recently, I put together a snapshot of how Olympia is unique amongst all schools in Hanoi (or Vietnam, for that matter). See the link below for how I attempted to message this via Prezi:


The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

(January 27, 2015) - An informative article from Scientific American, it points to the process of raising not only intelligent students, but also intelligent teachers, administrators, and human beings in general. One can learn how to be better in all aspects of her/his life, including personal relationships, by adopting this mindset. Have a look:


USA Visit 2015: Continuing Olympia’s trend globally

(January 4, 2015) - During the Christmas and New Year holiday, I had a series of appointments with experts in education. Each brought a unique perspective to the table, and each had tangential points to what we are doing and will continue to be doing at Olympia to provide the best education possible. Beginning with Michael Horn, we discussed ways to enhance and to refine our blended learning practices. Olympia will serve as a case study, or profile school, and data bank for Michael and his research team at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This will provide Olympia with outside experts who can help us implement blended learning with maximum efficiency. In addition, we will look to acquire outside funding in order to host a global symposium on blended learning in Hanoi. Tony Wagner, a leading advocate of educational reform, is a colleague of Michael and may be able to be our keynote speaker. Upon return from Boston, I met with Drew Miller and Mark Morawski. Drew is the Head of Admissions at Cranbrook Schools, a K-12 school in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and the place where I began my teaching career. Arguably the best prep school in the Midwest, Drew and I discussed how we can make this education more accessible and more affordable for our top students at Olympia who may want to study abroad during their high school years. Mark is the Head of Schools at Covington School, a grade 3-8 public school in Birmingham, MI, that is also a Microsoft Mentor School. After touring the campus with him, we discussed ways to connect our younger students through technology–specific ways to forge global relationships and the sharing of ideas in elementary and middle school. These ideas and connection points will be shared with my English team back at Olympia, and we will begin implementing these outreach strategies upon my return to Hanoi. Later this week I meet with Pam Dion, founder of the AdvantagesSchool, which is our on-line partner for dual diplomas. Currently, we have 16 students in the program. I will add reflections upon this visit once completed!

Varying Assessments to Evaluate Multiple Intelligence in Students

(12/9/14) - Please view this Prezi. This model is being incorporated in the Olympia Schools this year, grades six through twelve.


University of Education: Speech to graduate school

(11/17/14) - I want to thank the University of Education for allowing me to offer you a few remarks on this special occasion. What an exciting time to be an educator! The field is rapidly emerging with the advent of new technologies, globalization, brain research, and the constant need for new sets of skills for students to succeed in this information age of the 21st century. Now, more than ever, the world needs highly trained educators who understand the art and science of teaching. The University of Education recognizes these challenges, and with its cooperation with researchers and educational institutes around the world, it is working to make its graduates leaders and pioneers in this realm. You have the opportunity to learn from some of the finest minds in education here at the university—professors that are applying the best global practices.


At Olympia, we are excited to serve at the crossroad between theory and practice, where ideas and innovations drawn up in the graduate school classroom can be applied and tested with students in real work conditions. This occurs in every major industry, and education should be no different. Currently, we are working with a dozen interns from the University of Education who are observing, will be practice teaching, and will be reflecting on the art and science of teaching. In addition, we continue to share resources, ideas, and best practices between both schools. It is important to realize that both the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Stanford Graduate School of Education inform many of the principles applied in the teaching practices at Olympia, and these methodologies are shared with the University of Education and serves to broaden our research capacities.


We will continue to expand our cooperation as Olympia moves more global and technological through on-line coursework, blended learning, project-based design, interdisciplinary studies, and international cooperation with peer schools. Our experiences will help to inform the graduate curriculum at the University of Education with real-time data, and the knowledge and research of the graduate program will help Olympia continue to improve our content and delivery systems.


It is an exciting time to be in education! The most important trait I hope to impart onto you is not necessarily what you are learning, but rather, how you are learning it and accessing information, so that this passion for continual education does not end when you graduate–it only begins. Educators are lifelong learners–and the University of Education graduate program will equip you with the skills and passion to continue this quest long after you graduate. Thank you.

Using “Henry V” as professional development for teachers

(10/30/14) - As it is with a diet or training for a marathon, one cannot cram teacher training into one day at the beginning of the year, one day at mid-term, and one day at the end of the year and hope to have meaningful results. Yet most of our schools operate this way as they implement professional development. What is needed is a more sustained approach, an approach that is active, enjoyable, and personally gratifying on multiple levels rather than just another power-point presentation with theory and personal anecdotes. An authentic experience assures increased internalization, and consequently, greater application of what is learned to the classroom. So how can reading Shakespeare’s Henry V accomplish this? Better yet, how can this work with Vietnamese teachers who have their own cultural heritage and little to no exposure to any of Shakespeare’s writings? And why Henry V?

“By watching how historical figures behave in settings far before our time — in this case, looking at the characters Shakespeare brought to life in Henry V — we often get very good insights into what is vital in our own leadership or managerial moments,” says Michael Useem, co-director of “The Leadership Journey” and director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management. “We include Shakespeare in our range of learning experiences because it is one of the more indelible ways we have found of bringing points to life — in part because of the power of his insights and also because of the intrinsic elements of the stories he tells.”   Useem adds, “looking at the language in Henry V will remind you to offer up the big purpose of why you are there and also to make it personal and motivational. For doing that, Henry V is about as good as it gets.”  But how does this apply to the individual classroom?  And how does this help a teacher get better?

Let’s begin by defining what a classroom really is:  a team.  If we think of ourselves as a coach of that team, then we can begin to draw parallels between the challenges Henry faced and the challenges we face each and every day.  How do we motivate our players (students), or, for Henry, his soldiers, when it seems that we are facing overwhelming obstacles outside of our control and some within our control?  How do we learn what our students really need, and how can we meet those needs?  How do we instill values and principles–and enforce them–amidst a culture that seems to run counter to what we are trying to do?  These challenges, while set in the context of war in Henry V, are human challenges that span the test of time and have direct application to our lives today.  But will a group of teachers from England, Canada, the United States, and Vietnam make these connections?  Our “Book club” meets on Friday, November 28, and I will analyze the effectiveness of this experiment in a subsequent posting . . . stay tuned!

Creating Innovators: Teachers with Quality Leadership

(10/13/14) - While volumes have been written about the need to create innovative thinkers in our classrooms–an indisputable fact for students–less has been written about how to start this process by changing the mindset and skill set of the teacher, the most essential ingredient for institutional advancement.  To change one’s way in the classroom is a risky business for most classroom teachers.  For the new teacher, they have been instructed in methodologies and content from the university.  And for them, this is the only way that they know how to proceed although they could always fall back to how they were taught in school:  it worked for them.  For the more experienced teacher, they have been relying on tried and true methods that have been successful, or at least not unsuccessful, over many years, and to move away from these strategies means a movement away from a comfort level and into the “unknown”, not to mention added work in preparation.  Of course, many shades of grey exist within teacher experience between these bookends.  But the mentality is essentially the same.  To change methodology, to change content,  and/or to change delivery systems threatens the status quo, and it is human nature to maintain equilibrium and remain in our comfort zone.  As educational institutions,  how do we move teachers towards innovation, which will require more work, more planning, more experimentation, and more risk-taking when the very process runs counter to human instinct and does not come with added pay?

Leadership by example is an essential ingredient if moving teachers to action is the outcome.  I have been blessed by seeing two extremes of educational leadership:  one effective, one not.  The first involved a Head of Upper School who started as a classroom teacher, moved into a Department Head role and then onto Dean of Faculty position before earning the Head of School responsibility.  A graduate of a Master’s program in English, he had a breadth and depth of subject knowledge that allowed him to connect with all learners, students and faculty alike.  He inspired and encouraged advanced degrees in content-area for his teachers, and this launched me into the Bread Loaf School of English, an unforgettable experience that undoubtedly improved my teaching ability.  Despite the demands on his time, this Head of School insisted on teaching a class; this allowed him to understand the processes involved in the classroom, the innovations occurring in delivery systems, the nuances of the teenager with each generation of learner, and the demands of preparation, performance, and assessment.  He used his class as a model for all to “drop by” and visit in order to see a master educator at work.  Thus, he could empathize with the new teacher, inspire the mid-career teacher struggling for identity, and tutor the veteran teacher grappling with change.  He practiced what he preached and motivated by doing and showing rather than telling and pretending.

The second involved a Head of School from the world of business with very little knowledge about education (except what could be read in a book) and no experience in curriculum, methodology, educational innovation, and teenagers, the latter being the most important piece.  Discouraging younger faculty from seeking advanced degrees unless they could be directly applied to his obscure vision of education, he managed from dictation based on theory rather than practice.  Claiming himself to be an innovator in education, he recklessly experimented with schedules, curriculum, and methodologies in pursuit of alchemy while eroding from his ranks talented faculty who saw through the charade of marketing tactics and wanted simply to teach students how to think, not what to think, in the ways that work best (even if they are not so innovative).  Thus, this leader had zero credibility with his thinking faculty who gradually departed from the ranks for more progressive and trustworthy educational pastures.

Students do not remember curriculum–they remember teachers.  Creating a climate that rewards and celebrates quality teaching and modeling new techniques and methods starts at the top.  This ensures that innovation will be internalized, understood, and applied successfully for the benefit of the student–not the benefit of the innovator.  It is not a game of ego.  If we maintain our focus on the students and understand who they are, how they think, and why they are in school, we can and we will educate a generation of creative, self-realized learners who will contribute to making this world a better place than it already is.  It starts at the top.

Vision 2014-15

(8/18/14) - Michael Horn, a writer for Forbes, made the following observations about Olympia as he toured the country’s most innovative schools this past February: “It (Olympia) was the first Vietnamese school with a college counselor on site like an international school—normally college counseling is offered via a separate paid center—and its graduates often attend university overseas. It stays open late to assist its parents who work. Olympia Schools offers some online learning options to its students—in particular through an online software program called English Central that assists its students in listening and speaking English. The school was very interested in expanding its use of online learning to create more personalized learning options for students and invited me back to speak to its staff a few days later about blended learning so that it could start a planning process immediately. I would not be surprised to see the school become a model for blended learning in Vietnam in the near future.”

Since Michael’s visit, we have put into place ThinkCerca as another on-line tool to assist students in reading and writing, and we will be looking to do the same with ALEKS, IXL, and Khan Academy, software programs designed for mathematics. In addition, the Google platform that Olympia is using will allow us to do more collaborative projects and allow cloud-based storage for digital portfolios, as will Evernote, a free, web-based notebook system. By next year at this time, all students, from 1st grade to 12th grade, will be using a device and learning technological skills as defined by the Common Core curriculum standards. In our efforts to address the needs of all students, both in terms of learning style and academic ability, we will be launching our X-cel program this year, where our more advanced students will be taking mainstream courses in English rooted in the Common Core standards in both math and Humanities. It is our goal in a year or two to begin offering AP courses for these students at the senior level with the option of dual diplomas with both virtual and brick and mortar schools in the US and Canada. Students would be taking courses here at Olympia as well as online course with participating partners.

But these are only tools, and these tools only represent a fraction of the Olympia experience. They serve to assist our talented and creative faculty to reach each and every student’s learning profile as they became self-actualized lifelong learners. We place the highest premium on the art and craft of teaching; without quality teachers who engage, motivate, and challenge students, technology and curriculum will fall flat. We will continue to refine and improve our professional development this year and the next not only with our Olympia U, but also in conjunction with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who will be guiding us with PD throughout the year with a “book of the month” reading program.

This is the vision for the next few years, a vision only possible through the hard work, dedication, innovation, and open-mindedness of a faculty who cares. And that is exactly what we have.

Opening Day of School (August 4, 2014)


Greetings, and welcome to what will be an amazing 2014-15 school year. As mentioned before, teachers, staff, bus drivers, housekeepers, cooks, maintenance workers, and security officers have all been working together to create the best environment for you to succeed academically, athletically, socially, and morally. Every adult in this community takes pride in our work, and we hope you do the same.

I want to talk with you briefly today about expectations: expectations for the adults in the community, and the expectations we have for you. As I thought about this question, it became evident that these expectations are the same. While the tasks may differ in complexity and difficulty, the spirit behind what we do and how we do things remains the same. Do your best, do what is right, care.

Let’s start with “do your best”. What do these three words mean? According to Dictionary.com, the verb “do” has 33 definitions, but I wish to highlight just a few. Think about how these words are the same yet uniquely different in scope.

1) to perform (an act, duty, role, etc.):

2) to accomplish; finish; complete:

3) to put forth; exert:

4) to be the cause of; bring about; effect.

5) to create, form, or bring into being:

6) to explore or travel through as a sightseer: They did Greece in three weeks.

All of these definitions suggest that we are capable of action; we are agents of motion, of creation, of exploration—not inactive recipients of external forces, like a rock that has no choice but to become wet in the rain. Let all of us “do” and let us “finish” what we do.

But how shall we determine the quality of our doing, for not all doing is of the same caliber, right? Doing is measured from within each and every one of us, and that is our best, which, accordingly, can be defined as 1) of the highest quality, excellence, or standing: and, 2) most advantageous, suitable, or desirable. Only the individual (you) knows if these markers have been met. As you end each day, take a moment and reflect if you have truly given all of your effort to your work, to your family, to your friends. If so, terrific. If not, think about how you can adjust for tomorrow, where you will have a new beginning with the rising sun to make your mark.

Our second theme also involves doing and the quality of our doing but in a moral sense rather than in a production sense. What does “right” mean? Yes, we know it is the opposite of wrong, but that, too, seems rather abstract. And the dictionary affirms this abstraction with a full 62 possible definitions! I think we can simplify all of these into one: “in accordance with what is good, proper, or just.” Again, we can continue with our line of inquiry by asking for definitions of good, proper, and just, but let’s agree upon this: doing what is right is what you would like others to do for you, and, on the contrary, what is wrong is what you would not like to have happen to you. As the New Testament according to Matthew says, “do to others what you would have them do to you”—that should be how we think of “right”.

Finally, care. Care about yourself—live a healthy life in mind, in body, and in spirit. Olympia provides exactly that education for all of us where we develop our thinking strategies and cognitive abilities in the classroom and with our homework. In physical education, we exercise our bodies and learn about how to take care of them, for without a healthy body, we cannot have a healthy mind. Nurture your spirit. Take a moment at the end of each day and ask yourself, “did I do something to make the world a little better today? If not, what can I do tomorrow?” Care about each other. Everybody in our school deserves respect, compassion, and dignity, no matter if they are a student, a teacher, or a bus driver. Say please. Say thank you. Smile. Care about your family. Let them know you love them each and every day. Better yet, show them that you love them by doing kind things, living to your full potential, and making use of your opportunities here. Care about this place. If you have garbage, throw it in the trash-can. If you see a wrapper on the floor, it is your job to pick it up, not someone else. This is our house—we all live, eat, sleep, and work here. Let’s treat our campus like our home.

My commitment to everyone in this community is to do whatever I can to help you reach your full potential—as a teacher or as a student. For the students, together in partnership with your parents, we all have the same goal for you: to be the best human beings possible, to have the most opportunities in life, and to live a life without regret. I truly look forward to this wonderful opportunity that we all share.

The Olympia Experience

(6/29/14) - It is with great enthusiasm, commitment, and creative energy that my wife, Van, and son, Kien, join the Olympia family. Having worked with the Board of Trustees, administrators, and teachers over the past three years and in American boarding and day schools for over twenty years, I can say with confidence that we are entering a community of professional and dedicated educators and a nurturing and supportive environment for all constituents.  There is no other school in Hanoi (or Vietnam) that celebrates what it means to be Vietnamese in terms of culture while also providing a comprehensive experience in the study of English and global issues.  Together as a team, we will continue to develop and to refine the Olympia experience for families and for students as we prepare them for what is an ever-changing future of challenges and opportunities. We seek to solidify fundamental skills, foster creativity and problem solving, and promote habits that will allow our students to adapt to new situations, to improvise, and to overcome unforeseen obstacles. Indeed, we are preparing students for life! I invite you to stop by the school anytime–you are always welcome, for we are proud of our students and teachers and, for that matter, our entire community. It is only through a true partnership–parents, students, teachers, administrators–that we can propel our students to achieve their maximum potential as students, but equally important, as global, ethical citizens.

So why Olympia?  Michael Horn, a writer for Forbes, made the following observations about Olympia as he toured the country’s most innovative schools this past February:  “It (Olympia) was the first Vietnamese school with a college counselor on site like an international school—normally college counseling is offered via a separate paid center—and its graduates often attend university overseas. It stays open late to assist its parents who work. Olympia Schools offers some online learning options to its students—in particular through an online software program called English Central that assists its students in listening and speaking English. The school was very interested in expanding its use of online learning to create more personalized learning options for students and invited me back to speak to its staff a few days later about blended learning so that it could start a planning process immediately. I would not be surprised to see the school become a model for blended learning in Vietnam in the near future.”


Since Michael’s visit, we have put into place ThinkCerca as another on-line tool to assist students in reading and writing, and we will be looking to do the same with ALEKS, a software program designed for mathematics.  In addition, the Google platform that Olympia is using will allow us to do more collaborative projects and allow cloud-based storage for digital portfolios.  But these are only tools, and these tools only represent a fraction of the Olympia experience.  They serve to assist our talented and creative faculty to reach each and every student’s learning profile as they became self-actualized lifelong learners.  We place the highest premium on the art and craft of teaching; without quality teachers who engage, motivate, and challenge students, technology and curriculum will fall flat.  Our “Olympia University” occurs two weeks before the opening of school, and during this time we set goals and objectives for the year, increase our knowledge and proficiency in best practices, and work and design in teams to further enhance our espirit de corps.

The Olympia Schools, the evolution of Dreamhouse that began back in 2003 with the vision of providing the best early childhood education possible, has its identity rooted in the fundamental belief that all children deserve a nurturing environment to explore their innermost intellectual, social, and character development.  This spirit and culture permeates the halls of the Olympia Schools today as evident in our graduates.  I encourage you to reach out to them, for they are living testimony to the wonders of this education, and it is one of the main reasons we decided to raise a family here and accept such a honorable role as the Head of Schools.  With this honor comes the responsibility to provide the very best experience for every family and student, and I promise you a relentless effort to make this happen.

Opening Remarks: Family Reunion Day

(3/22/13) - It is in the spirit of festivity and celebration that we come together tonight to celebrate family, friends, food, and the coming of spring. I want to begin by thanking all of the parents for believing in the mission of the Olympia Schools and supporting student activities such as this event. It is through your support and trust in us that we are able to thrive and to continually improve our programs to meet the global challenges before us. In particular, thank you to the Parent’s Association for their donation of the bakery equipment in the kitchen. Not only does this provide delicious nutrition for us all, but it also offers us the opportunity to expand our curriculum into the culinary arts. Thank you, too, to the faculty, staff, and students whose dedication, open-mindedness, and commitment to learning and discovery have made Olympia a true institution of higher learning. The world continues to change rapidly, and successful schools must be able to pivot as well both in terms of structure, content, and delivery systems. Teachers and students need to be adaptive and flexible, able to react to the unknown and predict potential challenges that have yet to exist. At the Olympia Schools, we are constantly moving forward in our efforts to prepare students to thrive in these uncharted waters of the future by developing the whole child–academics, athletics, art, and music. A school centered on multiple intelligences, we discover with students their talents–no matter how they may be expressed–and we provide opportunities for them to be innovators and creators. Thanks to all who make this possible, for only a team effort between parents, teachers, and students can bring these dreams to fruition. Enjoy the evening!