One of those mornings…

My morning commute put me right back on Hurricane Island on one of those sweet, warm, foggy mornings that makes my heart hurt with a mixture of joy at being alive, longing for days past, the urge to run away down the coast to find a beautiful spot to just be…

It was sunny and bright at my house when I pulled my bike out of my shed. I didn’t even notice the fog sitting over the river until I reached the end of D Street and saw that peculiar glow in the air. Up on the bridge, I looked ahead and saw trucks emerging from a bank of fog so thick I couldn’t see the middle of the bridge, let alone Portland. The air was full of sparkle, glowing. I felt like I was in a wormhole connecting me to one of those Hurricane mornings… I could hear the gulls, hear the waves, smell Hurricane Sound.

The right lens of my sunglasses was completely fogged up by the time I crossed the lifting spans. I had to take my glasses off and wipe them on my leg. And with that, I rolled into clear sunshine in Portland. 

I love those mornings that smack me in the face and say “see! you live in one of the most beautiful places in the world! get out and love it!”


Emergency Education

This week our Global Urban Education course is looking at Emergency Education and the good work of the International Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE, Our assignment was to pick a theme from the INEE toolkit, say why it spoke to us, and say what we are inspired to do about it. Here is my response to hte assignment. 


I am choosing to focus on the INEE Toolkit Theme of Teaching and Learning because, by my read, it most closely connects with what for me is the most inspiring theme in emergency education – the essential, multifaceted role of impacted communities in emergency education. And it takes an activist attitude toward education, not just in working to ensure that it happens but using education to prevent violent societal disruption, to prepare for and recover quickly from disaster.


As I read Education Under Attack, the 2010 report on the scale and impact of violence directed toward education institutions, educators, and learners, I was impressed by the data on the protective power of community investment in education.  In an example from Afghanistan, simply allowing local people to use the word “madrasa” instead of “school” and inviting community members to monitor schools’ curriculum contributed to 161 schools being re-opened in one year as opposed to just 35 being opened in the previous year (p. 29-30). The report referenced the  Knowledge on Fire study that found a strong correlation between community involvement in schools and reduction of attacks on education (p. 114). I am excited about the potential to use education as a way to build communities and to use communities to build education that serves both immediate and longer term needs. No doubt that is harder than I can imagine!


While the topic of emergency education brings to mind war-torn, crisis-ridden countries in far corners of the globe, I am also struck by the alignment of the best practices in emergency education with the best practices in reforming schools in the United States. In 1990 the Consortium on Chicago School Research launched a longitudinal study of hundreds of elementary schools to distinguish the elements that best support effective school reform. In Organizing Schools for Improvement Anthony S. Bryk presents this research and case studies on two of the worst of these Chicago elementary schools: one that turned itself around, and one that did not.[1] Extensive analysis of the implementation of reforms identified the following as the most important, powerfully interrelated elements to turning the one school’s performance around:

  1. Coherent instructional guidance system
  2. Professional capacity of teachers and staff
  3. Strong parent-community-school ties
  4. Student-centered learning climate
  5. Leadership that drives change


These five components are strongly related to the INEE toolkit components and content. I find this sobering and affirming and inspiring. While there is a relatively robust model for education in all situations (strong leadership, student-centered approach, community involvement, well prepared and supported teachers, some degree of local autonomy, assessment systems), implementing this model is challenging almost everywhere. I think one contributor to the challenge is the inherent tension in education between short- and long-term priorities and goals. Education is by its nature a generational investment in people and countries. Crises of war, drought, poverty, and gang violence demand immediate action, often at the cost of strategic long-term goals like education. This tension between immediate need and long-term good is perennial.


I’m inspired to work to empower communities to own the outcomes of their education systems and to define education such that it meets both near- and long-term goals, addressing the immediate challenges and preparing youth for a better future. I sound like a broken record and I’m afraid I’m being naive, but I do think that citizen science and project-based learning can contribute to both short-term community needs and academic achievement for youth. In Maine, for example, Vital Signs is empowering youth and communities to steward natural ecosystems. I would like to see teachers and learners go farther and address community-identified issues and concerns. If teachers and students can address emergency needs and challenges (accessing water, sharing information, distributing resources equitably, etc.) and use these as a context for learning, students will learn their academic lessons while contributing to community safety and well-being, building protective community appreciation for the value of schools. Although of different scales, I think this could be as true in rural Maine, where school budgets are often under attack, as in refugee camps. So often on Outward Bound courses I saw the power of the authentic context of a sailboat or rock climbing work magic on (privileged) disaffected youth. In the ten times more authentic immediacy of emergency, it makes sense to me that empowering learners and teachers to contribute to their communities would be similarly impactful. 


My concern that I’m being naïve comes from a suspicion that there is some minimum resource or stability requirement for project-based approach to work. Teachers and students must, for example, have access to information, or tools with which to build a network of communication to collect information and or share it. Optimistically, I think there are manual or analog means of accomplishing the things that we take for granted that technology can do today. But I’m nervous.


Our foray into emergency education has also reminded of a framework I learned almost two decades ago for working with adjudicated youth in Outward Bound programs. The model suggested that the healthy human psyche was like a car with four wheels on the ground.[2] Each wheel represented an essential component to emotional health: security (of shelter and food), love and belonging, autonomy, and a fourth that escapes me (I might even have these three wrong). If any of the four wheels were missing, the theory went, a young person couldn’t engage productively with learning or challenge. We typically well-educated, financially secure white kids were trained to engage our often poorly educated, financially insecure, often traumatized charges to understand their worlds and how many and which wheels they were missing before we attempted to challenge their behaviors. (I really should unearth those notes from that training all those years ago!). People in emergencies may not be ready to tackle challenges, however, being enabled to be proactive about addressing or improving their situation may provide important healing.


Throughout this discussion, I’m well aware (I can’t say painfully) of my utter lack of experience with what it means to be living in an emergency, or even living in poverty. By global standards, I have a hugely privileged, safe existence here in North America. Until I have walked in a refugee camp or woken up in a post-Katrina New Orleans or walked the streets of Haiti I can’t really know how plausible it is to think of integrating education with disaster recovery. Barring this, I still have much to learn from the INEE Toolkit and the wisdom of the many practitioners involved in drafting and revising it.


P.S. Did you see this article in the NY Times today (July 30, 2013)? Its’ a great twist on teacher preparation in India: and a powerful example of the impact of empowering a community of people (in this case, resident low income women as leaders in education)

[1] Bryk, A. S. Abstract: 

“Organizing Schools for Improvement.” In Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 91, No. 7 (April 2010): pp. 23-30. Retrieved from

[2] Possibly from Glasser, W. (1965). Reality therapy. A new approach to psychiatry. New York: Harper & Row, although it may have been a modified version of this theory. I’m working from memory.


another great assignment from my Global Urban Education Class

Our week 6 assignment from Fred Mednick was to 

“Please write a one-page letter to anyone passionate about starting or working in an organization designed to help education around the world.  Take into consideration what you’ve read thus far in this course and in these most recent scans of the web.  Here are some guidelines for the approach: 

  • “Narrow the focus of that hypothetical person’s passion…
  • “Play the role of a mentor…
  • “End with your advice for about what to do next…”

As I’m contemplating the broader world of education myself, I chose to address myself with this letter. I think this nicely fits the spirit of the assignment!

July 20, 2013

Dear Sarah,

I know how passionate you are about citizen science, as an engaging and empowering educational approach, as a way to engage kids with their environments, and as a way to ask and answer important questions about our changing world. I know you are contemplating how to do this on a bigger stage than just Maine. Here are a few considerations.

Check your assumptions – education looks very different in different corners of the world, and good ideas and approaches are found in the unlikeliest places. Don’t forget that you don’t know exactly what learning currently DOES look like in all corners, and how important it is to get that understanding before offering suggestions. Creating project-based learning in resource-poor schools may require addressing unforeseeable challenges as well as predictable ones, like technology access. There may be in-county or in-region resources available. Speaking of which, don’t forget to search for resources under different titles, such as inquiry-based learning, or enquiry-based learning or problem-based learning, etc. And there is no substitute for on-the-ground experience with the challenges of education in new-to-you places.

Teacher preparation – What are the key steps teachers must master before launching their first problem-based unit? What are the resources that can help teachers launch their first projects? Creating a toolkit of training, tips, and materials may be essential. And don’t forget your lesson in Vital Signs that even for well-trained teachers, asking interesting investigable questions can be difficult. For teachers without post-secondary degrees this is liable to be very challenging indeed. Last Sunday’s New York Times story about education in rural areas of Afghanistan is a case in point. In Afghanistan, only 24% of teachers have the two years of post secondary education required under Afghan law to qualify as a teacher.[1] Teaching these teachers how to guide their students through asking relevant questions, supporting students in developing strategies to address their questions, and producing a product to share with their communities may require significant support, in the form of training, materials, or coaching. In rural areas that are not linked by internet connection or even cellphone signal, this could be impractical to support at any scale.

Most people live in urban areas – I know how you love citizen science focused on nature! And there are likely wonderful opportunities to create these projects in many countries. But don’t forget that most people live in urban areas. According to Asian Cities Climate Change Resiliency Network, half the world’s population lives in cities and this trend toward urban living is continuing.[2] If we don’t help city dwellers appreciate environmental issues such as natural resource security and climate change we will miss the bulk of the world population. Citizen science is not just about nature in its undeveloped splendor, but about urban parks and gardens. Think about how project-based learning can happen in cities, how city-dwellers can study and interact with their natural environment, how they can address resource issues important to them.

Small successes can be powerful – Start small, learn on the ground, grow on early success. Don’t neglect building in powerful, pragmatic measures of impact!

Good luck!


Your July 2013 self

[1] Nordland, R. (2013, July 20). Despite education advances, a host of Afghan school woes. Retrieved from

[2] Asian Cities Climate Change Resiliency Network and the Rockefeller Foundation. Retrieved from


Outside my windows

First of all, I don’t work in a classroom. I do have two very different views from the two very different offices from which I work. I haven’t been splitting my time between these two spaces for very long – it’s been a little over a year now.  The fact that I have these two very different views is part of the reason I’m taking this course.

The first window, the one I’ve enjoyed for the last eleven years, is of Portland Harbor in Maine. I see a lawn, sometimes occupied by 5th or 6th graders visiting our lab in Portland to participate in LabVenture!, one of the signature education programs of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), where I work. As often I see tankers, tugs and barges, or container ships coming or going on the Fore River. I see the fishing vessels tied up on the piers (over the last ten years, their numbers have dwindled, but the few that are left now spend less time at sea than they once did). I see the sky. Occasionally, I see the moon rise. In the summer evenings or winter afternoons I often see the Band of Venus, the pink shadow of the earth on the atmosphere. I often call my colleagues’ attention to the view when something special is happening – a ship going by, a striking cloud formation, a rainbow, the moon. This view makes my heart ache and makes me feel lucky. I feel so fortunate to get to look out this window.

My second view is decidedly more developed and urban and foreign. My second desk is in a NYC living room, from which I can see several brick, 3-story buildings, an intersection, and one very busy cherry tree (birds, birds, birds!). I can see a little section of sky. Occasionally a troop of kids will walk by on their way to Central Park, flanked by protective and wary adults. Lots of ambulances use these streets, though I hear them more than I see them, their wails lasting far longer than the brief glimpses I get. I’ve seen an arrest, with four cops with guns drawn taking a suspect down to the ground with shouts and drama. I see the same man walk slowly by several times a day with his two loose-limbed, aged dogs. I see people all dressed up on their way to work, all dressed down on their way to the park, and everything in between. I saw one particularly lovely cloche hat on a woman one drizzly day.  I see planes in the sky, and occasionally the moon. I never see a star. Yet this view also makes me feel lucky – I’m on the sunny corner of a relatively quiet neighborhood in a world famous city, just a short walk from Central Park. I work from this living room on the weeks when I’m visiting my NYC-shackled man. Over a year in, it still seems very foreign.

So, those are my views from my windows… how have they influenced my perspective on education?

Maine water is where my education really started, as an instructor for the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. I spent six summers in little boats, mostly with 14-16-year-olds, sailing and rowing and living along the coast of Maine. I taught navigation and sailing and cooking. I learned from my students how to stop fighting rain, how important a little humor can be, how to expect people, including myself, to surprise me. The little boat taught cooperation and teamwork and responsibility and respect for effort. The cold water we slipped into each morning and the rocks we climbed taught us all that we are capable of more than we think. Seeing the ocean from my desk at GMRI reminds me of these lessons, reminds me that lessons are best learned when they aren’t contrived but are real, when they are immediate rather than theoretical.

The NYC-shackled man very much wants me to move to NYC. I may know something about education, but I certainly don’t know much about urban anything. And I’ve never taken a class in education. And I think very highly of Fred. Altogether, this Introduction to Global Urban Education seemed like a great opportunity. I’m not sure yet how the view from my NYC desk will shape my education thinking, but it has lead me to this course. I have a lot to learn. And learning inevitably changes thinking. I’ll probably have a better answer in eight weeks.

Here goes something

I’m starting this blog five plus years after I first had the idea that I should. I read a piece by a teacher-blogger who suggested that the single easiest, cheapest thing we might do to improve education would be to require all teachers to blog. The reflection required to write and share ones thoughts publicly, he hypothesized, would cause teachers to examine their practice and improve it. I wish I remembered his name so that I could give him credit (I do remember that it was a he, but that’s it). 

I’m not a teacher, but I do work in education, and I’m very interested in improving my practice, whatever it may be. 

I’m also starting this blog because I promised myself that I would. It was the action I committed to making at the end of the Deeper Learning conference I attended earlier this month in San Diego. There’s a self-addressed postcard sitting on someone’s desk in San Diego at High Tech High with my commitment on it. I wanted to beat the postcard. I did! (Yes, i’m one of those people motivated by competition, especially when I know I can win.)

I’m going to use this space to challenge myself to find my own voice, my own way of synthesizing and making sense of what I read and learn in my work and life. I’m happy to be undiscovered for the time being, and I aspire to feel differently some day. 

Lao Tzu, I think it was, said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” or something close to that. The banner I bought on top of Mount Fugi that is crumped in the corner of my bookshelf says “One step, one step, one more step,” or so the nice Japanese salesman told me.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!” That’s one of my favorites from my old Hurricane Island Outward Bound quote book, which is far from me at the moment (thank you Google, Goethe, and William Hutchinson Murray).

So, I begin!