Student Choice Amplifies Student Voice

Written by Maddie Hunt, Tsai Hsing Grade 8 Teacher

As a self-proclaimed Type A personality, I value an environment that feels calm, predictable and direction-oriented. I am the type of person with color coordinated calendars hanging on my fridge, planners with meticulously sorted tabs and a keen appreciation for an empty email inbox at the end of each day.

So why on earth did I choose the vocation of a teacher?  Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in a classroom knows that attributes such as predictable and calm feel more like the outliers than the norm.  I imagine my motivation for choosing the life of an educator is the same as the vast majority of those in the profession: the students.  No matter how chaotic, unpredictable and messy teaching can be- there is nothing more rewarding than working with students.

students working

So as I began to narrow in on my own teaching pedagogy, I struggled with creating an environment that was both structured and empowering.  How could I help my students grapple with critical thinking while still maintaining the boundaries and parameters that give us direction?  I quickly began to find that organization and creativity did not need to be mutually exclusive- rather they work quite well in tandem.

Enter: student choice.

It was easy to see that once my students were allowed to make choices around their learning, engagement would rise exponentially.  Students finally felt ownership in their academic journey- it was no longer about what their teacher needed them to learn but empowering them to learn with conviction.

There have been countless moments in my teaching career where the integration of choice in projects, assessments or discussions has amplified student voice.  Most recently, our 8th graders at Tsai Hsing were grappling with concepts such as being an Upstander amidst gender inequities.

student project

Two concepts that have a lot of layers to unpeel. So instead of spewing my own interpretation of how to be an Upstander in life’s difficult moments, students were presented with some rudimentary information on the topic and left with one simple directive.  How will you stand up to the injustices of today?

student project

Now this is where things really got cool.  With beautifully planned templates and color coordinated lesson plans, my students were given a platform to share their own ideas.  They needed to write, develop and procure a short film that would inspire their communities to not only understand current day gender inequities, but also be empowered to stand up to them.  I. Learned. So. Much.

What inequalities were our youth facing? How did they experience gender equality? What would they feel empowered to do about it?

As I watched, with privilege, all of their short films I was again reaffirmed that when students are given opportunities to be creative and take ownership of their learning, their voices shine.  

So to all of my fellow teachers out there, I would challenge us to think about how we can continue to offer and integrate choice in our classrooms.  I don’t have the perfect recipe- (if you have one- feel free to send it my way), but I do know that once we allow our students some sovereignty  in their education, we are allowed to sit back and rhear their voices, passions and self-worth shine.  And really- what more can we ask for as teachers?

Shark Tank! Project-Based Learning over Video Conferencing

Written by Patricia Reiter

Shark sightings were reported in our 7th-grade Learning Live classes this past December! Our students participated in an entrepreneurship competition modeled after Shark Tank, the popular television series where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to savvy investors. Inspired by the show we launched our students head first (pun intended!) into an ocean (again!) of product development and high-pressure pitching. They absolutely loved it.

shark tank
Our sharks consisted of a former CFO, COO and executive vice president of IBM Global Services, a computer vision research engineer, and a product manager. They considered our students’ pitches carefully and asked pointed questions within each of their respective expertise (finance, computer engineering, marketing).

The students were definitely in “unfamiliar waters” as they sunk or swam. Abner, Gene, and Ian were ready when they were asked about the product liability for their small-space-living-problem-solving “Double Sofa Emergency Alarm System Toaster Clock”. Their fire retardant material was water-resistant/stain-resistant and even had a built-in alarm system that called the authorities for help (whether or not you used the automated wifi connected communication). Oh, it also detected earthquakes and sounded the alarm but still made you breakfast.

Another student, “HC” proposed a new currency just for students. The currency would work just like Taiwanese dollars but would be given to students from their teachers for things like good behavior and high grades. HC furthered that the money would expire two years after graduation. This would allow students who worked hard to gain a positive start in life.

Our former CFO was intrigued but wanted to know how HC made money on the product. HC replied, “You have a credit card, right?” and explained that he would assume the credit card company role and keep a small percentage from all transactions. Since the projects had to be realistic but not real, HC was able to explain that he already had funding approved from the Taiwanese government in an effort to promote domestic spending and to retain the best local talent in Taiwan for the first two years after their graduation. This would help to solve a major problem facing Taiwan right now: a brain drain to neighboring China where economic opportunity can oftentimes be greater than in Taiwan.

HC got a new partner! The Tsai Hsing future business leaders did an exceptional job representing their classes and their school to our impressive and impressed SHARKS! Did someone say, “Shark?”

Give Your Brain a Break… Before it Breaks!

Written by Lila Perkins

Coronavirus. 

Pandemic. 

Remote learning.

Too many things out of our control.

Did I raise your blood pressure yet? Or make you pop a blood vessel? If so, my apologies. But seriously, how do we protect our brains from the onslaught of news and information they absorb every day, on top of trying to keep our lives going? And how do we encourage our students to keep striving academically through it all?

“Sometimes you need to give yourself a break when you’ve had a lot of life change.” 

— Barbara Freethy

According to Psychology Today’s Nick Morgan Ph.D., “Our brains still work. They’re just stressed out.” 

“…attention spans,” he says, “once lost, don’t go to Mars, never to return, unless you get really, really lucky and the International Space Force commissions a rocket to rescue you. Rather, they need 30 seconds or less to refresh themselves and they are back, strong as ever, ready to raise your consciousness still further hour after hour.”

Dr. Morgan illuminates the importance of taking small breaks when completing day-to-day tasks. It is easier to tackle the challenge of brain-fatigue when working at a micro level.

Starting with something as simple as closing your eyes…

And breathing…

Inhale…

Exhale…

For 30 seconds, I invite you to enjoy the gifts of silence and stillness here with me. See what you notice in your body after you read this sentence. 

Is your neck stiff from craning to look at your screen? Are your eyes sore and strained? Do your hands ache from endlessly typing and scrolling? How is your spine? Are you hunched over, lungs unable to fully expand on inhalation? Are you fidgeting, trying to stay focused?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you could use a Brain Break.

“Wisdom is knowing when to have rest, when to have activity, and how much of each to have.”

— Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

In my own lessons, I’ve witnessed how just 30 seconds of strengthening that precious mind-body connection makes a difference in the way our students process information. Committing to one or two Brain Breaks in a lesson that lasts about an hour can increase the overall amount of information they retain. Brain Breaks can also make the lesson more enjoyable to participate in!

So what does a BGL Brain Break look like? During a live virtual class, students need a traditional brain break as well as a break from watching a screen! We use many strategies to keep students engaged, focused and brain-ready. For instance, our puppet friend Olive from our Digital Citizenship programs has a marvelous routine that keeps her on track when studying and using technology!

We use Olive’s tools in many of our lessons. When we notice our students exhibiting signs of brain fatigue, our instructors work to ease them out of it with some gentle stretching, neck rolling, eye blinking, and good ol’ fashioned wiggling around. Reducing tension in the body makes one more receptive to taking in new information.

If someone asks me, “What are you stressed about?” I can usually name twenty things off the top of my head. But what about the classroom of students in front of me? I put myself in their shoes. A third-grader may have nothing ‘real’ to worry about in your eyes, until you consider things they may be hiding for the sake of doing well in school.

This pandemic is affecting kids in ways we as a society will not be able to grapple with until years from now, when they’re old enough to put more words to their feelings. On top of the stress of being too young to understand many things in the world around them, today’s youth must constantly worry about this unprecedented pandemic. And climate change. And gun violence in schools. And… well, anything you’re worrying about, trust and believe the kids are worrying about it, too.

Many if not most children these days have 24/7 access to the same news and media outlets that adults do. They see what we see. They hear what we hear. They feel the same stress we feel. And many of these children are told that their stress is nothing compared to what adults deal with. This cannot be further from the truth.

“There’s room for all of you, and for everything you experience—the grim and the glorious, the wounded, wounding, healing and healed.”

— Hiro Boga

It is the responsibility of those in positions of power and influence to provide the empathy and support that children need in this moment. The very least I as an educator can do for them is carve out 30 seconds of my lessons to make sure their brains can cool down and reset. When they watch me wiggle around and make a fool of myself, and they smile and join in- I know this is worth it. No matter how small, these Brain Breaks are worth it. When time allows, I do more than 30 seconds, inviting them to suggest a relaxing movement or activity. I encourage them to connect with their own bodies and see what they need in these moments of brain fatigue.

I see the disruption that this pandemic has caused as an opportunity for educators to restructure the way we all teach and learn. We need to be more connected with our brains and bodies now than ever before. We must validate the stress we all feel, and do our best to support each other. Give your own brain a break. Teach these kids to give their brains a break. Prioritize reducing stress. We all deserve that much.

“When you rest, you catch your breath and it holds you up, like water wings…” 

— Anne Lamott

Innovation for Banyan Brains

Written by Marty Perlmutter

The context of our proposed academic innovation initiative includes most importantly the social milieus and community values of Taiwan. Whatever we do must honor the communitarian spirit and intellectual style of that society. Whatever we offer must address the rapidly morphing climatological, technological and global-citizenship world students confront.

What passed for breakthrough tech in 2021 will be passe in 2025 and risible in 2030. Career goals that made perfect sense in 2010 are questionable today and may be more than ridiculous in a decade. We have an obligation to incorporate the roles and work styles of the midterm future in learning we provide now. Innovation that celebrates the past is not worthy of the title.

Our students are pursuing skills in communication and socio-political navigation. They are not technical nerds, which is a gift for the innovation team – because we can look beyond tech fashions of the moment to macroscopic trends that should inform learning experiences in the late 2020s.

Possible subject clusters:

  • Blockchain, NFT and Crypto
  • VR, AR, Immersive Environments and Gaming
  • Collaborative Investigation of Crowd-Sourced Data

Education for the Future

BGL educates global citizens. We promote perspectives that allow students to grasp foreign worldviews and play roles of adept collaborators on any continent. BGL advances the view that the future is unknowable but will doubtless grow from technologies and trends discernable today. Students can project roles and career paths based on investigations conducted in the current world. But we must not mislead today’s 12 year olds into believing the hot jobs of today will exist in future decades. The future will surprise us—that we know. It is folly to attempt what once was termed “straight-line projection.” The world offers many paths to students, none of them straight.

Predictability

In a society that prizes communitarian values and social conformity, what does “innovation” mean and how can it be practiced? One thing evident today in every field of endeavor is that current fashions, tools and methods will likely be the target of disruption or transformation. Value once calculated by adding to existing piles of money, information or product is today recomputed as it’s impacted by acceleration in connecting, extracting or transforming data. What does that tell us about likely directions for work in the future?

There are no “safe” harbors where work will remain constant for decades to come. Doctors and engineers require frequent upgrading of training today to remain employable. Lawyers are under profound threat from AI and software creation itself may become the province of disembodied intelligences that already loom. 

Direct human care looks like it might be a resilient field, but there are affordable, patient and responsive robots already serving sickly elders. They never require a sick day or a pay increase.

What are the careers of 2040? We don’t and can’t know.

So how do we help students prepare for a tumultuous future, immanent but mysterious…?

What capabilities are disruption-proof?

The capacity to invent, to innovate, to imagine something new is itself a teachable skill and one, like communication, that is unlikely to become obsolete.

Innovation as Curriculum

To serve the global-citizen learner-innovators of the mid-21st-century, BGL could do great service by guiding students to the known verge of technology, media and scientific exploration and imparting skills of thinking, planning, collaborating and team leadership that will remain valuable in any future milieu.

What are the most important skills we can convey? We already know that learning is socially constructed, so the capacity to collaborate in exploring and communicating is vital. BGL teaches that today. This project will investigate new tools for data collection and group collaboration, capabilities that inevitably will be part of any career. We will look at and work with the latest methods for recording and analyzing data, on any scale. We will study practical uses for immersive technologies, with an eye to applying these to future health, collective decision-making and commercial needs. We will consider entirely new forms of value creation, using crypto-currencies as a special case of blockchain technology. We’ll also look at practical uses of blockchain for record-keeping in health and education.

We will take our students to the verge of what’s being tried in VR, AR, AI, Crypto and Blockchain and peer over the edge, aiming to impart a style of collaboration and method of thinking that will yield what once was termed “reliable creativity.”

What will it mean to be a “creative thinker” in 2030 and beyond? Why might that be a valuable skill? Does being creative mean you can’t be a good team player? What sorts of groups and teams work best when the task requires inventing something new? What IS “innovation,” really?

Walking the Walk

We are embarking on a survey of the latest and greatest in educational technology innovations. We’ll learn about the best and brightest things being done on the bleeding edge of ed tech. We know that only culturally appropriate methods will gain traction and acceptance.

BGL is challenged to create a curriculum that is not only inventive, but enables its participants to grasp the meaning of innovation, glimpsing the limits of what is known and usable at the edge, and then bringing into collective use techniques and tools that are more than cool – they alter the way learning is conducted, the way teams are formed and, most importantly, the way students think. We might impact the way students visualize how to make a living, how to live a life, and how to lead in socially beneficial ways that improve the lives of all.

Digital Citizenship is a Literal Life-Saver!

Written by Lila Perkins, Teacher/Administrative Assistant Banyan Global Learning

I was born in 1997, which makes me an elder of Gen-Z. I was in the “guinea pig” group when it came to implementing technology in the classroom. While participating in the transition from chalkboards to smartboards, I couldn’t help but feel like I was running a race that only got faster.

Our teachers were learning in tandem with us students, meaning we had more agency as kids in our own online development. Every month my classmates and I were exposed to new bouts of technology advancements, and with those advancements came uncharted territory.

We did not have in-depth knowledge of the dangers of technology. 

This resulted in many of my classmates being exposed to things that we were not prepared to deal with. One wrong click and the screen would be filled with violence, gore, or adult content. Even with the implementation of parental controls, my natural adolescent curiosity propelled me to dig deeper into the internet’s crevices. Of course my parents warned me not to poke my nose where it didn’t belong… but my thirst for knowledge and entertainment (and, maybe a little bit, the forbidden itself) overwhelmed whatever small warnings I was given.

I had an innocent desire to absorb more of the world through this miracle technology. But because internet literacy was not stressed enough in school, I ended up watching and reading a plethora of things I was too young to comprehend. I wish I could take a lot of it back.

Now, at age 24, I worry for the kids of today. I feel I have a responsibility as a Gen-Z elder to protect them from the dangers and stresses of the rapidly evolving online world.

Upon joining Banyan Global Learning, I was ecstatic to get involved with the Digital Citizenship programs. For our youngest learners, these live virtual programs use a combination of live puppeteering and short videos featuring the same puppets. These vignettes have at least two parts–the first sets up a real-life digital problem while the second models a solution. In between, students are given the opportunity to practice their own digital citizenship skills as they articulate their own solutions to the problem. For our youngest learners, this means showing the puppet Tangie how to properly care for her digital devices and helping her friend Raz decide which links are safe to click on. For upper elementary students it gets more complicated: how can Sunny and her classmates build an online community? How does Olive find balance between screen time and school work? And how should we safeguard our digital footprint when the internet is forever?

After my first few sessions hosting and puppeteering, I realized that even the youngest students were able to make meaningful connections in a safe virtual classroom setting. Each lesson is infused with Social and Emotional Learning. Students leave understanding how the many facets of their online life can impact the emotional wellbeing of themselves and their peers.

Most importantly, even though these programs were for kids, I found healing for myself as well. Growing up with technology but without these kinds of supports, I’ve had to navigate the creation of digital boundaries on my own. 

The world we are leaving for these young learners is full of intense challenges, but I’m comforted by the fact that they are being given a digital toolkit to navigate this part of that world safely.