‘Refugee’ Revisited: Rio 2016

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Image Credit: Kirilos via Flickr

The Olympics aspire to inspire. This year, nothing has captured that spirit more than the standing ovation received by the first Refugee Olympic team at the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

One team member in particular, 18-year-old swimmer Yusra Mardini, captured the world’s attention through her story of having pushed a sinking dinghy to shore, saving 20 lives as she and her family fled Syria.

Through all the (indisputably worthy) praise for Mardini and the rest of the team, less energy has been invested in exploring the conditions that engineered such a team into existence.

International policies are accountable for forcing these athletes, and countless others, into refugee status. These policies were enacted by many of the same countries whose athletes paraded alongside the refugee team. The same culpability resides with transnational bodies such as the International Olympic Committee: How do we, for example, reconcile the paradox of welcoming a refugee team during an event responsible for displacing 77,000 more?

A partial answer comes in recognizing that “refugee” is not a nationality, a flag by which to march under, but a status we as a global community have forced upon these individuals. Continue reading

Why Don’t Policymakers Read Research? Actually, They Do: An Interview

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“Why don’t policymakers read educational research?”

This is a question I hear a lot in academic circles. In fact, bemoaning this fact on Twitter led me to a fabulous conversation with Shree Chauhan—who told me that, in her experience working with policymakers, they do read educational research and want to read more, and that we in academia could make that much easier to do.

Chauhan (see full bio below) is an education entrepreneur who also manages education and health policy for a national civil rights organization. She has worked in the federal education policy arena for nearly a decade and was kind enough to answer some questions for me based on her experiences. Our conversation, summarized below, highlighted the need to bridge gaps between the worlds of academia, policy, and advocacy organizations.

1. How do we get policymakers to read academic research?

Chauhan points out that, as well all know, policymakers are busy, busy, busy, so the more concisely we can sum up our work, the better.

“In a congressional office, any staff member is dealing with 7 or 8 issues, with education being one of 10 big things that are weedy and difficult. Research is usually written using jargon-filled language that many people don’t understand. If you bring in a 40 to 50 page paper, most may not be able to consume it. So go deep with your research and know exactly what you’re doing, but be able to break it down in a page… even find a good graphic designer to actually make it visually appealing and easy to understand.”

2. What kind of research do policymakers find most convincing and useful? 

I’d assumed folks on Capitol Hill would prefer something with lots of of numbers, graphs, and data. While Chauhan affirms that numbers are important, she urges us not to forget the human side of politics as well: Continue reading

High Stakes Testing and Critical Thinking: Is Balance Possible?

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Note: This post was part of a larger conversation between nine educators on C.M. Rubin’s Global Search For Education Blog on The Huffington Post.

 Can teachers balance high stakes test prep with critical thinking?

Let me first say that I don’t have a magical answer; anyone who says he does is trying to sell something. Let me also say that, for this post, I’m going to set aside the (utterly imperative) question of whether or not schools should engage in high stakes testing, and instead focus on how teachers—within our current reality—can balance test prep alongside deep, critical learning.

Like many, I’ve struggled with this balance, particularly while teaching in South Korea where “high stakes” takes on a whole new meaning: Though Korea boasts some of the world’s highest test scores, this comes at the expense of untenable student stress, staggering rates of teen suicide, and an education system largely geared toward cramming for tests. Fortunately, my employer understood that critical thinking can actually boost test scores, and we engaged students in collaborative learning, tackling real world issues through interactive “critical thinking projects.” Students worked hard, improved their English, and actually had some fun in the process.

And oh yeah: They passed exams, often with flying colors.

As a high school English teacher in the U.S., I’ve seen a school-as-test-prep mentality increasingly Continue reading

The Grass is Always Greener – in China?

Made in ChinaWhen President Obama made his first trip to South Korea in 2009, he created a national buzz by declaring his deep admiration for the South Korean education system. And how could he not, with its stedfast students and astronomical test scores? Since then, Obama has repeatedly reaffirmed his call for the U.S. to learn from education systems like South Korea’s.

Back in 2009, I found this deeply ironic: At the time, I was living in South Korea and worked at a private English academy. The company’s main selling point was advertising a unique, “American-style” curriculum in which students engaged in critical thinking and problem-solving as opposed to rote memorization and test prep – educational emphases that nearly every teacher, student, and parent I met in Korea realized would not make their country globally competitive for much longer.

Now, working in the U.S., I often hear the argument that we desperately need to learn from, admire, and emulate education systems like South Korea’s. And I must say, I’ve long been confused by this mutual envy. Do we have such diverging needs? Does one system really have it right? Or is it just that the grass really does look greener on the other side? Continue reading

Finland’s Big Secrets

This week, I was able to hear Finnish education researcher Pasi Sahlberg speak as part of Boston College’s “Secrets and Lies of International Performance in K-12 Education” series.

FYI: This video is of a different talk than the one he gave at my school, but a good overview in Sahlberg’s own words. 

As you’ve probably heard, Finland has one of the top-ranked education systems in the world. Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” let us in on some a few “secrets” behind this success, some of which I’ve highlighted below (and the last one’s a doozie).

Secret #1: Equity Enhances Excellence

Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries with more income, gender, and racial equality tend to perform better on international education measures than comparably wealthy countries with wider social disparities (ahem, the US). This fact isn’t a shocker in itself, but remember that educational policy conversations usually talk around this subject – acknowledging that rampant inequality exists, then passing the buck on to schools to remedy the (obvious) outcomes of an unequal system.

Continue reading

Happy Banned Books Week!

“Offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.” You know it just makes us want to read them MORE.

In honor of Banned Books Week The Huffington Post ran a list of 10 Gorgeous Quotes From Banned Books, which included my favorite quote from my favorite banned book:

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What about you? What’s your favorite banned book? Here’s a sample from the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of the Past Decade (I’ve read/taught the ones in bold. Any of the others I should pick up right away?):

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle Continue reading