Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where America Shops – (Or not.)

searsDo you want a software engineer or hedge fund manager removing your appendix, filing your taxes, or fixing the brakes on your car? If you don’t want to wake up dead or incarcerated, probably not.

But we still give credence to the education “reform” movement spearheaded by folks who have never stepped into a classroom. There seems to be this idea that if a person makes billions of dollars in one industry their talent seamlessly can be used to “fix” education.

We need to run schools more like a business, we need to be data driven, we need more technology we need competition. Sara and I like to ask – exactly what business are you referring to? Enron?

The above tenets don't even work in business at times.

Sears CEO, (and hedge fund manager with no prior retail experience) Eddie Lampert gave some ideas that should sound familiar to the school reformist a spin with one of America’s most recognizable brands.

He pitted store managers against each other so that they competed for resources based on performance reviews.

He spied on and goaded his employees.

He became obsessed with technology and data collection – squandering resources on apps while his stores infrastructure crumbled.

So how did this work out for Mr. Lampert?

Sears has lost half its value in five years.

Tools that may have worked for him in his prior profession as a hedge fund manager did not translate into success when he became a retailer.

But we are expected to implement these very same steps in our schools and succeed?

We need to foster a feeling of cooperation and collaboration I the education world – not one where high stake test scores are published without context in order to scare and shame teachers into compliance. Hanging that sword of Damocles over our educator’s heads provides a disincentive for teamwork. The teacher can end up feeling that it is them against the world, why should they share best practices with the teacher down the hall aiding and abetting the competition?

This didn’t work with Sears – and it’s not going to work in school.

Requiring every lesson plan to cite a standard or worse yet that every teacher follow a script that is checked up on from some unseen terminal not only comes across as spying but infers to the educator that they cannot be trusted – that they need to be checked up on constantly. This not only infers that the teacher is inadequate it fosters mistrust between the classroom and the administration.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

The blind allegiance to technology and data collection while ignoring the root causes impeding robust instruction such as poverty, transience, infrastructure and curriculum not only breed failure but becomes an impetus for data manipulation. Technology has its place – but a strong inquiry based curriculum where the teacher, with parents, sets goals based on the student’s needs not on how well they will stack up against kids in the same grade level on the other side of the country is much more important than any iPad app.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

Now Sara and I fully understand that there must be some sort of assessment and that the implementation of standards is not inherently evil. (We’ve linked the applicable standards to all the lessons in our new teacher resource.) We just believe the execution be left up to teachers and their principals – not someone with no real world education experience.

So no, I don’t want some software engineer tuning up my car, putting a filling in my tooth, or writing my will – nor do I want one setting my school’s education policy.

Do you?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It’s a Sausage party!

prisonerI am in an abusive relationship and I just can’t quit it.

United Airlines is the bane of my travel existence. I used to be a Continental kinda guy, a big wig at Cleveland Hopkins Airport – one of the airline’s hubs. I got upgrades, preferential seating all that good stuff that comes with flitting about the sky for a hundred thousand or so miles a year will bring. Sort of like hardship pay for all the time I spent with my butt in those blue upholstered seats.

Then all that changed one fateful day when the friendly skies over Cleveland darkened, ominously grumbling, then erupting with a boom as United Airlines swooped in like a lumbering albatross diving into a squadron of squid indiscriminately splashing and gnashing with its thick hooked bill.


Gone were those heady days of being treated like a human – a big fish in a little pond getting first dibs at the crumbs and perks tossed in my direction. Today I am but just a dead eyed anchovy greased with olive oil and wedged into a tin.

Nowadays – if I have the audacity to accept an upgrade within an itinerary I can expect the rest of my subsequent flights to be fed into a jet engine and incinerated on the tarmac. Eighteen hour flight from Singapore – how about we make your reservation disappear so that you have to beg for a seat at the gate – here ya go – a middle seat within the buoyancy bladder deep in the belly of the plane – hope ya don’t plan on going pee!


Oh you like those frequent flier miles? Tell ya what – we’re gonna take them away from you for no apparent reason other than we arbitrarily changed your ticket status after we accidently deleted your trip for the fifth time this year! You don’t mind spending a couple hours listening to the opening measures of Rhapsody in Blue do ya? Imagine Al Pacino shouting Boohya! right here.

But – every now and then even the most frustrating fiasco has a serendipitous silver lining.


A couple years back United was late in getting us to Newark for a mid-December overseas flight and we missed our connection with Air France (the only major airline with worse customer service on the planet). Because of this we ended up taking a later flight missing the rest of our connectors and spending an unscheduled night in Frankfurt.

As is the policy when the missed flight is the airlines fault they put us up in a hotel and got us booked out the nest morning. As we checked in to the Steigenberger Hotel we asked if there was anything to do that evening. “Well, there is the Christmas Market,” was the reply. Sara and I figured it would be a little folksy kinda thing. But instead we found city block after city block of food and festivities – a whole section of the town was a yuletide wonderland fueled by sausage and chocolate.


So this time when we found ourselves connecting through Frankfurt on our way home from Kazakhstan we built in an extra day so that we could hit the market again.

So thanks United – if you weren’t such a mess we would never have known the joy that is a five sausage sampler plate with sauerkraut and potatoes while a brightly lit carrousel spins in holiday cheer over our shoulders.


Keep up the bad work – as long as it is sprinkled with fortuitous happenstance every now and then I’ll resist taking out a restraining order.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


A Lennon with a different spelling than the one pictured here asked us to do just that – Imagine.


One thing that Sara and I couldn’t ever have imagined ten years ago was that we would be bopping around the globe spreading poetry as a literacy tool as our way of keeping our dog’s food bowls full. We are just back from our second trip to Kazakhstan – we could hardly believe that we would ever go there in the first place – much less a second time. But there we were on the windblown steppe home of yurts and borscht.


Sara and I feel so lucky to be working in the International School world. It’s comparable to one giant district with folks moving around the globe like backgammon pieces hopping back and forth. We’ve worked with the same educators in multiple venues thousands of miles apart, manifold time and temperate zones, schools big and small.


The international educators community is a subculture unto its own – comprised of people with a little adventure in their DNA – a trait that Sara and I share. Within this subculture are subsets of differing interests and avocations that overlap here and there slicing into almond slivers of varying thickness ala Venn diagrams. You’ve got your tech folks, your music folks, your zombie aficionados, your arts folks and my personal favorite – your bicycle folks.


It has been my pleasure to hook up with riders across the planet riding in jungles, through city streets, on elevated paths over rice fields, through bleak Chinese industrial wastelands, amongst thatched hut African villages, through mud thick and heavy as wood putty and coasting downhill from the top of a volcano.


Most recently in Atyrau Kazakhstan I had the opportunity to ride with my buddy Brent Fullerton who I first met in the rain forests of Borneo where he and his clan of mountain bikers - the mud hogs -attempted to grind me into the humid rich tropical soil. Well here we attacked the thick mudded Kazakh steppe and the paved and dirt pathways around the Ural River. Brent is the tech coordinator and jack of all trades teacher at the Dostyk International School, a boutique sized school for Chevron employees’ kids where teachers wear many hats. (Brent is also a lunatic – a mountain climber – trekker – and all around adventurer/explorer.)


We went out on the bike twice while I was visiting – once to the bleak and gray industrial edge of the steppe where wheel stopping mud turned us back and then again on a group ride called in commemoration of one of the members moving away from KZ.


In this group were mixed folks from the school, Chevron and from Shell. Dutch, Irish, Canadian, Americans and Australians a veritable hodgepodge whose overlap in this case was cycling. I was informed that the two camps, Chevron and Shell rarely if ever mixed – except in tis cycling group. As we toasted the man of honor while having breakfast at a riverside pub I was grateful for the camaraderie that a couple of pedal powered wheels were able to provide. This little spandex dressed subculture that cut across corporate loyalties and personal politics was my entryway into a sense of belonging half a globe away from my home.


Imagine that.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dostyk American International School

Okay we are talking about seventy degrees of separation – Fahrenheit that is.

My friend, all around adventurer, teacher  and tech guru, Brent Fullerton was the instigator behind Sara and my visit to the international school in Atayrau, Kazakhstan. The last time I saw him we were in Balikpapan Borneo – half a globe away and whole lot warmer.

I should qualify that – the outside temperature may have been warmer but our reception here on the edge of the steppes couldn’t have been more kindhearted. Sara and I felt welcomed and appreciated by the whole staff and student body. What DAIS may lack in size of enrollment (around 80 kids grades pre-K to 8) it more than makes up with a sense of inclusion in this close knit community.

We opted for a home stay instead of spending the week in a hotel – bunking with the Parkers – Konna (rhymes with Donna) and the super hero alias sharing Peter. He middle school language arts and history, she science and math. Good call – we laughed and chatted and made a couple of new friends before the week was out. We also became pals with the Parker’s Husky – Tashi. I did learn though that Tashi has decided that his main job in the household it to guard the laundry drying rack which he does with no small amount of fierceness.

At school we worked mostly from our new book High Impact Writing Clinics and visited each classroom twice from the little pre-K guys through the eighth grade. We ended the residency with the kids performing the work we coproduced in the classroom for the whole student body and their parents and teachers.
Principal Raul and his wife Patsy made sure we were comfortable every step of the way and the aforementioned Brent and his indefatigable better (and I mean way better) half Cheryl were responsible for bike rides, dinners, and accompaniment on hat buying trios to the market.

sara and peter conferring during class

This was our second trip to Kazakhstan and after the experience we had this time we sure hope it won’t be our last. Now, I wouldn’t mind the next time being during the spring – but even this wind swept steppe of a visit left us toasty inside.


Monday, November 25, 2013

NCTE 2013

This is my favorite conference. It may not be in the exotic locations globally as some of the others Sara and I attend and speak at 0- but this one is where we get to see so many of our friends.Boston progressively got chillier while we were there – but the camaraderie and ideas just kept heating up.

We did a session with our dear friend Nancy Johnson, attended a couple other sessions, had coffee with Michael Clark from Singapore American School, had lunch with Jane Yolen and Heidi, signed our new book at the Corwin booth – I was going to sign books at Scholastic but since I don’t have anything published by them they got a bit snooty when I whipped out my Sharpie at their booth.

We attended cocktail parties at the top of the conference hotel with the Corwin team chatting with Smokey and Elaine Daniels and meeting our new favorite fledgling editor Francesca while watching Corwin publicist Maura almost vibrate into invisibility as her brain spun like a centrifuge with details and we laughed with Steph Harvey and Vicki the next evening at Heinemann's shmancy soiree at the Gardner Museum.

An amazing Moroccan dinner capped off our last night with a whole slew of teacher fiends from all over the globe and then it was time to come home.  I could name drop forever all the keen folks we ran into - some for a fleeting hug, some for a snippet of conversation, Georgia, Lester, Ellin, Steve, Nancy, Paul, Lee Ann, Christine, Lee, Beth, Larry, Jack, Lynn, Lisa, Ralph, and on and on - the list would forever be incomplete so I will just stop here.

Thanks to the teachers, the presenters and the vendors that gel into my favorite conference.

ADDENDUM: I am sad to report that the disk in my camera has somehow become corrupted and the pictures on it are inaccessible. This year’s conference will have to remain in my brain – a sketchy dwelling to say the least. So I leave you with the only pic I have from the conference – Sara, Heidi and Jane.  (What is it with authors and the color black?)


Monday, November 18, 2013

Mannheim Middle School–Chicago

“Well, now I can scratch you off my bucket list.”

This is what our hostess Barbara Underdown told Sara once we arrived at her school on the outskirts of Chicago. Seems Ms. Underwood had witnessed Sara in action a few years back and decided she wanted to get my partner in rhyme to pay a visit to her school before she (Barbara) retired.


Well Barb retires this year and Sara came to visit. (I came along too – sort of like the icing on the cake – being the sweetie papeetie that I am.)

On the drive to the city with big shoulders Sara and I listened to The Poisonwood Bible which has a family of characters named Underdown in the story. I took this to be a harbinger of something good about to happen. I was right.

Mannheim is in a working class neighborhood and has a population of around 85% ESL (English as a second language) students. The building is a little old – but impeccably maintained. As soon as you walk in and see the work on the walls you know you are in a place where learning is paramount.

We did a couple big assemblies – one with just the eighth graders and then a second with the six and sevens that left the auditorium packed standing room only to the balcony. 

We than tag teamed a couple writing workshops with some of the sixth and seventh graders. We spoke about personification and word choice along with defining some big concept abstract nouns.


What was not abstract was the dedication and enthusiasm that Barbara had for teaching it was unflaggingly apparent – and in her final year before retirement to boot! In this standards obsessed education environment, here is one standard – the engaged and confident instructor that is sorely needed in our schools.

Yet, it seems at times, that we don’t value these spirits. We keep looking for data gathering opportunities, to ideas promulgated by folks who haven't set a foot in a classroom as an instructor, toss in folks with a five week training program and expect them to teach our children. I hope that the powers that be aren’t testing and tracking the learning right out of the classroom.

I hope that as folks like Ms. Underdown graduate from the profession that we don’t simply plug in script followers putting in a two year stint to pad their resumes before moving on to “real” jobs.

From what I saw at Mannheim, I don’t think this is going to be a problem for this middle school. I was heartened to be in a US public school where deeper thinking was obviously the goal.

Thanks Barbara – thanks Mannheim.


this pic may be out of focus but the students were not!

Monday, November 11, 2013

New York - new book - new site

Upon returning from our month in Africa Sara and I had exactly one day to collect out thoughts and then we were off to New York State Reading and their annual conference.


Sara and I each did a poem to end the awards ceremony one evening and also presented on our Writing Clinics as well as public speaking. We met some hard working teachers and organizers plus we got the first look at our new teacher resource published by Corwin.

Holbrook_pb.inddAfter the conference we came home to a couple packages of High Impact Writing Clinics on our doorstep. I whipped up a new website under our DBA name – Outspoken Literacy Consultants.

We’re really enthused about this new resource (it’s really a whole lot more than a book.)  Every time,  often after we give a presentation at a conference we are asked for our PowerPoint  slides. Well the slides we use to present are not comprehensive enough to just be used as is. We use them as mnemonic devices to keep u on track while we speak.

So, what we have done is recreate 20 of our lessons in PowerPoint format along with a lesson outline so that teachers can use our slides as they teach the lessons to their classes.

We’re giving away three copies and an hour long Skype conference over at our Facebook page – check it out.

So, we’ve only been home for a couple weeks but we hit the ground running. Next stop Chicago and then at the end of the month – we return to Kazakhstan!

We’ll keep you updated.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Leap of Faith

zim001Okay, this last trip was something a bit new for me and Sara. We had never been sub-Saharan before so we leaped at the opportunity. Somehow the Association of International Schools in Africa got my name and their director contacted me about presenting at their annual conference. Of course I accepted, on one condition, that Sara was included.

This was a bit of a role reversal. Since Sara is the one with all the kids’ publications under her belt and it was she who introduced me into the education world a dozen years ago it is usually the other way around. A conference calls for her or more commonly nowadays both of us, and I come along as part of the deal. So I have not let it go unnoticed by her that I was the original contact on this one. Gotta take those small victories. Well in any case we both won on this one. We’ve been working the international school system for over a decade now, but mostly in SE Asia so when the prospect of visiting a new continent was raised, we swan-dived into the prospect.


Thanks to the transience of the entrepreneurial population who make up the talent pool in international schools we have contacts all over the world now. As such we have a modus operandi when a new overseas request comes in. We send a warning shot over the bow of folks we know in that particular part of the globe to let folks know we are in the neighborhood. It was through the efforts of Rita a librarian in Abuja, Nigeria who we had met long ago in Vietnam and who Sara had worked with in Sumatra that our month long tour of the Dark Continent became a reality.


We told the director of the AISA conference our intention to tour about the continent before attending the conference and he tried to dissuade us – noting the difficulties of traversing the expanse which is Africa. He wanted us fresh for the conference – free of jetlag, parasites, stomach distress, lost luggage, and not sitting in some sauna impersonating airport lamenting missed connections instead of presenting a session on writing across the curriculum.


Of course we ignored him – of course he was right. Luckily for all of us we had plenty experience in unpredictable travel twists and our schedule was (just barely) flexible enough that we were able to make all our commitments.


One thing we learned on this journey – we love the Africa we have come to know. We love the changeability of all situations, the color, the heat, the people, and the food. When we landed in Lagos, Nigeria and were tossed into the tropical tumult that is the roiling olio of the airport immigration and its Kafkaesque musical chair routines of standing in this mass of humanity and then that and then back for inscrutable reason - I couldn’t stop smiling.


The night before we returned home Sara and I chatted with another consultant presenter at the conference, a New Zealander whose specialty was learning and brain science. I asked him what was the impulse in the Kiwi psyche that impelled his countrymen to jump off of high things with rubber bands attached to their ankles. It is after all the home of bungee jumping.


He said it was the desire to confront fear and to conquer it – to step up to that edge, lean forward and let go. I think travel in the developing world is very similar and the aspiration to do so is that stretchy cord looped around one’s ankles. There is nothing like that first jump into a new place, when experience has no bearing, that initial step off the ledge when you just wing it.


Thanks for the ride Africa – we’ll be back.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Association Of International Schools in Africa 2013 Conference

aisa000Sara and I were lucky enough to be invited to present at the Association of International Schools in Africa’s annual conference. We both talked about using poetry as a vehicle for learning across the curriculum.

It was a poet rich event – Sara Kay – the young YouTube performance poet keynoted the first night and a local cat named Sir Black was also in attendance during the conference as a guest of the Lincoln Community School where he has worked with youth (see my earlier post re: the visit Sara and I made to this school). Add me and Sara to the ix and you have potent concentration of poetic prowess.


Sara – Sarah – and me.

The format was very interesting – as presenters, Sara and I gave two 6 hour sessions on consecutive days and then a three hour session the third. I liked the extra time to get a little deeper in the lessons with the teachers, but I didn’t think I really hit my stride with the format 'til the second day.


Not everyone had the best time at the gala dinner – this pig seemed pretty incensed.

Sara and I were presenting separate – and it’s been awhile since we have done so. Plus there were a couple tech glitches – on my part I couldn’t get the slide projector working correctly the first day so that I could see the slide on deck before it projected to the attendees. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but that little thing really adds to the smooth flow of a presentation. I had it figured out the second time around.


At least I had it a bit easier than Sara – her air conditioner gave up the ghost – and with a full room she did the whole day in the Ghanaian heat without losing a single participant!


As for the rest of the conference – the organizers had everything moving smoothly. Peter Bateman and his crew ran a tight ship. They even had a new compressor installed in Sara’s room so that the air conditioner was better than new for the next day. 


We really enjoyed our time with the AISA crew and it’s delegates and we certainly hope to be seeing and working with them again soon.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lincoln Community School Accra, Ghana

LCS001There is nothing better than getting to work with students for an extended time. Our librarian hostess Rhona, here in Accra, Ghana at the Lincoln Community School knew this.

Sara and I spent three days working with the 9th and 10th graders at this IB school. This meant we each got to see a class of 25 or so two times. That’s a total of four sessions of an hour twenty each. This is such a treat, by that fourth session we are able to call the kids by name.


We worked on personification, extended metaphor, narrative structure and public speaking. Rhona asked us to steer the kids toward global issues to coincide with a summit that she and the kids are working on that will be held at the school. So we did.


We ended the visit with performances by the students in an open performance space and every single kid we had in our sessions got up and performed one of the three pieces we had produced in the two days.


I am always amazed at the quality of work that kids put out. Not because I don’t have high expectations – but because of how often they exceed these expectations. The LCS gang popped the roof off writing and performing poems about world hunger, LGBT rights, terrorism, personal conflict and other real world issues. The pieces were thoughtful and specific and the fact that all stood up and spoke out just illustrates the fine job the school has been doing with these students long before Sara and I got our hands on them.


It was a pleasure to help these guys and gals raise their voices.


Just some of the students who performed their work.


Sara warms up the second grade audience before the 9th graders perform.


Our hostess and librarian extraordinaire – Rhona.