Cambodia and Thailand

We just arrived home from a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand and we had a wonderful time. Thailand is a beautiful place, with very friendly people, and such great food. We seriously ate so much, because our trip included a street food tour, visiting lots of markets, drinking good coffee, and a Thai cooking class. Chaing Mai has been one of our favorite cities in Southeast Asia. We also had a great trekking adventure that took us rafting on a bamboo raft and washing elephants at a local elephant sanctuary. It was an unforgettable adventure.

In April we also visited Siem Reap and Phenom Penh, Cambodia. I included them in the same post now because Cambodia and Thailand share a common and often overlapping history. Although the language is different and some customs are different both countries share more similarities than differences. Both countries are also considered developing countries. This is evident in both places by the drinking water (which you can’t drink), the poverty, the smells, and so many little things that we always take for granted, like regular trash pick up so that it doesn’t just pile up on the street. Despite all of this, Cambodia and Thailand are beautiful places, with really beautiful and kind people and we fell in love with them both. Thailand is far and away more developed then Cambodia, but Thailand hasn’t had to deal with the same genocide that Cambodia dealt with.

Everyone has learned the tragic history of the holocaust, but sadly not many people know about Cambodia’s genocide that took place from 1975- 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took over. About 1.7 million people, which was ¼ of Cambodia’s population, were executed or died because of disease and starvation in work camps during this time. In 1979 they were freed by the Vietnamese army. If you visit Phenom Penh, you can visit the killing fields where many were executed and an old high school that was used as a concentration camp. Cambodia’s lagging development can easily be attributed to the Khmer Rouge. During that time, they killed all intellectuals, teachers, scientists, and political leaders. Anyone with soft hands was under suspicion. There is an entire generation, my parent’s age, that lost ¼ of their people. Many now adults in Cambodia grew up without parents at all. It’s not as common to see an elderly person in Cambodia and when you do its hard to imagine how hard their life has been. For me, the saddest part about it is that no one knew what was happening in Cambodia during this time, and not many people even know about it now. I didn’t know until we visited. They have suffered so much, and yet it is not widely known. It makes it that much more incredible that this group of people are friendly, hard-working, continuing to develop, and happy with the simple things of life. They are such kind people with such horrific memories.

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“Killing tree” marking a grave of women and babies who were executed at Choeng Eck Killing Fields.

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Reprinting of the concentration camp rules at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. 

Cambodia also has an rich history in Siem Reap were the ruins of the ancient Khmer Empire date back to the 9th– 13th century. It is believed that Siem Reap used to be one of the largest cities in the area and ruins of Hindu-Buddhist temples can be found throughout. Today they are a major tourist attraction, especially Angkor Wat. We spent a day hiking through old ruins and it was really cool.

So, what is life like in Thailand and Cambodia? First of all, in both countries there is a heavy reliance on tourism. There are hotels and guesthouses everywhere, tour packages galore, and tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take you anywhere. Cambodia uses the US dollar as their primary currency and Thailand uses the baht. For foreigners traveling to these places you can eat, sleep, and get around for very cheap. For example, one US dollar will get you 33 baht. Both counties also continue to grow and develop and there is a lot of potential for investment. Although, Thailand is definitely growing at a faster pace. The growth in both countries is mainly centered around the major cities, like Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Phenom Penh, and Siem Reap. The small villages and farmers outside this area still live a very basic life without modern amenities and they often live in poverty. There is also very little freedom of speech in both places. To talk poorly about the government would land you in big trouble. From what we saw, neither governments aren’t doing much to help their people. Despite this, the Cambodian and Thai are incredible and so kind hearted. It reminds me that we can all be satisfied with a whole lot less.

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What I do all day…

Many of my friends, family, co-workers, and students don’t really know what I am doing during my stay in Singapore. You know I’m in Singapore, you know I’m here on a Fulbright, and you know I’m going to primary schools, but many may be asking what is she doing with her time? Also, what is Singapore like? I decided to answer this questions by taking pictures of my day. The following is my day in pictures.

rainy walk

My day often starts early. Sometimes before the sun. I don’t have a car, so public transportation is my only way for getting around. Some of the schools I visit are far away, at least relatively. Singapore is a very small island, so nothing is too far away. Schools also start at 7:30AM, so often I’m up by 6:00 to make the hour and half commute to work. Today I walked to the train station in the rain, which is a common thing in Singapore. It doesn’t rain all day, but like most tropical places it rains frequently. To leave the house without an umbrella is a really bad idea.

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When I arrived in Singapore I had to do some shopping. First, the teachers in Singapore dress very professionally. Its not uncommon to see heals, tailored jackets, or really nice dresses. I have been really impressed and a little intimidated by how seriously they take their attire. When I’m teaching I don’t dress poorly, but it is typically more casual. Teaching is a profession to be proud of and I’ve decided to step up my wardrobe a bit. Also, Singapore is hot all year round and the classrooms aren’t air conditioned.  I never dress up over summer break, so I was lacking on professional clothes made for this heat. Luckily there is a mall practically on every corner, so I’m “spoilt for choice,” as they say here.

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Today I am at Northland Primary School and I have been here for several weeks. I stay at each school for about four weeks, which gives me enough time to observe and get to know the staff and students. So far I’ve been to four primary schools and even visited two secondary schools for one day each. The teachers and principals have been very gracious in welcoming me in and setting up a schedule for observing.

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Today I am conducting an interview with a Northland teacher. The interviews help me know more about the school, but also are part of my research. My research is looking into differences in beliefs in teaching and learning math. I’m really interested to see how Singapore students and teachers’ beliefs compare to U.S. students and teachers’ beliefs. I’m also looking at Singapore teaching practices to see what we can learn. So far, nothing that I expected is what I am experiencing. Its been confusing, but also really good at opening my mind and thinking about lot of different issues in education.  Its also why international collaboration is important, and all collaboration is important. We can learn so much from each other if we take the time to ask questions rather than assume we know what to expect based on a stereotype.

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I also get to spend time observing different classes from P1- P6. That’s Primary 1- Primary 6 and its equivalent to our grade 1-6. In general, I’ve noticed two things from my observations. First, kids are kids. Its refreshing to see that even in a completely different culture the kids are still doing kid things. Even the 6th graders repeat “21” in the most obnoxious way whenever it comes up. It made me laugh really hard when I first heard it. Second, when teachers have time to observe other teachers its really really valuable. I’ve learned a lot of little things that I want to try. Singapore schools also push for open classrooms where teachers can feel comfortable stepping in to observe each others lessons. Its a great way to get new ideas, learn better practices, and get constructive feedback. In the U.S. we have a lot of professional isolation and I’d like to see us try to come together more.

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At each school I’ve been given a cubicle to use. When I’m not observing classes or conducting interviews I have time to work on my final project and other things. I’ve had lots of time for reading articles, reflecting on topics, and writing. Its really refreshing to have time to explore questions and dig into some research. Its something that I don’t always have time for at home, but its so valuable.

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Today I ate lunch at the school canteen. All schools have outside food stall venders that come in to sell food at the stalls. The food prices are kept really cheap, no more then $2 Singapore dollars ($1.40 USD). There is also a variety of stalls, usually Chinese and Malay style cooking. Most schools also have a “Western” food stall, but the food there is not anything I would normally eat. This is probably what the Chinese think of some of our “Chinese” restaurants at home.

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Today during lunch I pose for a picture with a group of students who are headed off to a Chinese dance competition. All of the Singapore schools have Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) and all students must participate in at least one. They have sports, uniform groups (think scouts), and lots of activities related to different heritages like dance or martial arts. Most schools have Chinese, Malay and Indian dance as well. It is really nice to see how they preserve the heritage and culture in this way, especially as Singapore becomes very modern and “westernized.” It also allows students to get to know about other races and cultures.

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My journey home looks like this, waiting for the bus. I’ve spent so much time on the bus or train while in Singapore. I’m a near expert on how to get around, as long as I have google maps. Singapore’s public transportation system is so efficient. The buses are nice, the trains are nice and they come regularly. I’ve never had to wait more than 15 minutes for the next one to arrive, and usually its there in 5 minutes.

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Take the bus from the school to the train station, then take the red line to the yellow line, take the yellow line to Buona Visit, then take the bus to stop behind our condo. Seriously, I spend SO much time on the train. I always bring a book with me and I’ve made it through three already. Despite the efficiency of the public transportation I really miss my car. I’m glad I don’t rely on public transportation for getting around. Unlike at home, where owning a car is a must, Singaporeans view owning a car as a luxury.  It comes with a luxurious price tag too. In order to keep the number of cars on the road down, the government imposes a tax. In order to buy a car you must first buy a certificate of entitlement. This certificate price fluctuates but ranges from $50,000- $80,000. It doesn’t get you are car either. It only gets you the right to buy a car and the certificate must be renewed every 10 years. You don’t see any junky cars in Singapore. A BMW is the standard car, because if you can afford the certificate you can afford a fancy car. Some people spend more money on their car then on their condo.

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I come home to this guy. By home, I mean to our condo that we share with other people from around the world. The cost of living is high in Singapore. Our one room in a shared condo is more than 2x our mortgage back home. It comes with some perks though, like a maid and four pools. JP spends a lot of his time studying. He’s taking an online class and it turns out that teaching yourself Calculus 2 is really challenging. He is working really hard and rocking it though, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sometimes we both squeeze into that little desk to get some work done. You know you married the right one when you can make any place feel like home.

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Dinner means a stop at the Telok Ayer Market where you can kind lot of tasty and cheap options. This one is built inside an old Victorian building. Hawker stalls are a Singapore staple. In fact most people don’t cook because you can find good food at almost every corner. Here we found, Chinese, Indian (our favorite), Turkish (our other favorite), Malay (wait that’s a favorite too), Korean, Japanese, so much. We still haven’t found Mexican that is comparable to home though.

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After dinner we are out exploring and headed to the Peranakan Museum. Peranakan culture comes from Chinese who immigrated to the Malaca Straits area (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). They have a distinct culture that is a blend of Chinese and other  traditions. There is so much to see and learn about.  We can hardly get it all crossed off our list, but we are trying. We are already down to a month and a half. I don’t know where the time went!

Thanks for following along with my day. I hope you learned a little about Singapore and my stay here. Please ask me any questions if you’re curious about something!

History of Math Reform

I’ve been working on a paper comparing the curriculum of Singapore and the U.S. Part of what I have been looking into is the history of math reform in both places. I’ve been fascinated to see how math instruction as swung from one extreme to another over the last century in the U.S. We haven’t been able to decide what was best for students. However, taking a look at policies in the past can help us move forward.

At the turn of the 20th century, education was largely influenced by the theories of Edward Thorndike’s stimulus-bond theory. The goal of this theory being to make schools more effective at educating and stratifying students. This theory affected mathematics education by leading a movement for drill and practice style learning that was pervasive throughout the 20th century. In the 1920’s a reform movement called the Progressive Movement was formed by the Progressive Education Association. This movement based its ideas of John Dewey that children need freedom to develop naturally, interest should be the motivation for all work, and the teacher should be the guide and not the task master. This movement failed to significantly alter teaching practices as many viewed it too radical. However, an off-shoot of this movement, called the Social Efficiency Movement emphasized the need to meet individual student needs and thus should be evaluated and then trained based on their abilities. High level math, like algebra, began to be considered an intellectual luxury only for “elite” students. They identified these elite through standardized tests, but in general it was white, upper-class, males that were selected (Ellis & Robert, 2005).

A movement in the 1930’s called the Activity Movement empathized the holistic nature of education and called for the separation of each subject to be removed. Instead math was to be taught as part of a thematic unit. This time also moved away from arithmetic and even memorizing multiplication facts and the level of rigor in math became poor. By the 1940’s a movement called the Life Adjustment Movement called for tracking students in mathematics and become standard practice in all schools.  Students entered either vocational, consumer, or industrial mathematics courses. The lower tracks were highly criticized for lacking high expectations (Klein, 2003).

As a result of competition with the Soviet Union in the 1950’s a more rigorous mathematics curriculum was deemed important and as such a “New Math” movement was begun, pushing the Progressive Movement to the side. Congress created The National Science Foundation (NSF) which provided funding for researchers in mathematics. Much research was done but many of it failed to make changes on a large scale. The NSF funding was also used to create the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) who studied the mathematics system and created a more rigorous mathematics textbook. These textbooks were distributed nationally, but failed as teachers and parents complained of their rigor and called for more “basic-skills.” The goals of “New Math” providing equal access to mathematics for all students mainly failed as well; most benefits of the effort were used for those deemed as college bound. The 1970’s brought a call for more “back-to-basics” which created a slew of textbooks with compartmentalized mathematical skills and procedures and little on problem solving and application (Ellis & Robert, 2005).

In 1983 a report put out by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) called A Nation at Risk created a large call for higher quality mathematics education. The need for equal opportunity for all students also become popular. In 1989 the NCTM created the first ever standards called the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. In addition, new thinking was established based on theories by Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky claiming that students need to play an active role in developing knowledge. This idea was termed “constructivism” and became very popular. The use of technology and manipulatives also became popular. The NCTM standards began were largely adopted throughout the 1990’s because of the efforts of the National Science Foundation. However, the NCTM standards met criticism by parents and some educators because they did not emphasize computation.

In 2001 the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law requiring states to create standards and an accountability system for students and teachers. However, some state standards and assessments were of better quality than others (Klein, 2003). In the mid 2000’s a state-led effort initiated by governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona aimed at creating high quality standards that would raise the bar for all states and that would be internationally benchmarked, meaning they were comparable to what other countries required of their students. These standards became the Common Core State Standards. In 2010, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were endorsed by President Obama and were offered to states for adoption. Those states that adopted them were given federal funding to help with implementation. Large political debate still exists over the CCSS because many fear that the standards are an example of overreach of control by the federal government. CCSS emphasizes a balance of conceptual understanding, fluency, and application. It is also much more rigorous than the Kansas Standards we had before. I know some disagree, but I think that is a good thing.

In all the shifting and lobbying for different ideas that has happened in our past I’m left thinking several things. First, the river of truth usually lies somewhere in-between. When we have such differing ideas about methods for teaching math instead of overhauling the whole system and emphasizing one area, conceptual understanding for example, at the expense of another area, say factual fluency, or vice a versa, let’s move for something to balances both ideas. The swinging pendulum is not good for anyone, especially for generations of students, now adults, who look back at their own learning wondering if they could have been given better. Second, it really is no wonder why the U.S. is being outperformed in math compared to other countries. We’ve never had a consistent vision. It is sad that the winds of education are swayed so much by the political party that is currently in power instead of being swayed by the educators, professionals, and parents who know best. When will political officials start making pragmatic decisions instead of political decisions? Finally, why can’t we figure out how to make educational quality equal for all students, especially minorities and under-privileged students.  This is the United States and its 2016. We have plenty of resources. I’ve seen how equally schools in Singapore receive funding and quality teachers. “Every school is a good school,” says a popular saying in Singapore, and this is mostly the case when it comes to facilities, teacher quality, and materials. Let’s invest in all of our students and let’s do it now.

References:

Ellis, M. & Robert Q.B. III. (2005) The paradigm shift in mathematics education: Explanations and implications of reforming conceptions of teaching and learning. The Mathematics Educator, 15(1), p. 7–17.

Klein, D. (2003). A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century. Mathematical Cognition.

New Zealand

Ok, I’m a little behind on posting this, but life has gotten really busy. Here is my reflection from our trip to New Zealand.

During Singapore’s March holiday JP and I took the opportunity to travel to New Zealand. We also spent a day in Sydney, Australia during a 10-hour layover. It was just enough time to see some of the highlights: the opera house, circular quay, the Sydney botanic gardens, the New South Wales Art Museum, and other beautiful CBD attractions. It was New Zealand, however, that had us memorized. We spent a week there and the whole country proved to be more beautiful then you can imagine.

We spent our time in New Zealand’s south island, staring in Christchurch. From there we visited the Mt. Cook/ Aoraki area. We traveled next to Queenstown and spent time shopping, biking, hiking, and eating great food. Finally we traveled to Milford Sound and kayaked and camped. We got to practice driving on the left side of the road and we spent a lot of time in the car traveling between places. The scenic drives were an attraction on their own with beautiful scenes out every window and around every corner. It was wonderful and indescribable. My post can’t even explain it. You’ll just have to check out the pictures to see a glimpse of the beauty.

We really enjoyed being outside, camping, hiking and enjoying the cool weather. It was early Fall when we were there and the cool weather was a nice change from steamy Singapore. New Zealand is the place for outdoor enthusiasts. We could have stayed there for much longer then we did, because there is so much to see.

Our top highlight was Milford Sound. It has been a dream of JP’s to visit Milford since he was a kid and it did not disappoint. We kayaked out for one day, camped on the beach and kayaked back in. The sound is huge and surrounds you with 1,200 meter cliffs. The water was smooth when we were there, but it can be choppy since it is fed by the Tasman Sea. The best part of our trip to Milford was that we came upon a herd of seals (yes, it’s called herd; I looked it up) and a pod of dolphins. On our first day out we saw dolphins swimming a far way off. Then on the second day we saw them again, because they came swimming right past our kayak. There were about 10- 15 dolphins that swam on both sides of us. Three of them came right to the front of the boat, close enough that I could have reached out and touched them. They seemed really playful and happy to be showing off. It was incredible and something I will never forget. The video is our best attempt at capturing the moment, because we  couldn’t get our phones out fast enough.

The people and culture on New Zealand was worth experiencing. New Zealand even felt like home in some ways. For example, the people are so friendly; it felt like mid-west hospitality. Also, it is not uncommon to see a tractor driving down the highway or the hills dotted with sheep farms and dairy farms. The kiwi lifestyle is really laid back. The shops all close at 5PM and restaurants by 8PM. FYI, New Zealand’s national bird is the kiwi, so New Zealanders call themselves kiwis after the bird, not after the fruit. The people in New Zealand care about the environment and about their land. It’s evident by the remarkable state of the land. There are 14 National Parks on the two small islands that make up New Zealand. They could probably exploit all of their mountains for minerals, but they don’t. They also make huge efforts towards conservation and renewable energy. Half of New Zealand’s energy needs are met by hydroelectric power. They have a large population of aboriginal or native New Zealanders and these people are well respected. Unlike its neighboring Australia the aboriginals were treated very well by settlers and still have a voice in the government. The food in New Zealand was great and the coffee was excellent. New Zealand and Australia’s signature coffee is the flat white and I loved it. They also have really cool modern houses. We stayed at a couple of Airbnb places and both houses looked like they came out of an Ikea catalogue.

We hope to go back to beautiful New Zealand again soon. There is so much to see and do that we already have a long list of things we want to do next time we are there.

 

Kansas Anti-Common Core House Bill # 2292

Today I learned the the Kansas legislature is considering, again, the removal of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), dubbed Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (KCCRS), for Kansas Schools. Like much of the news coming from my home state I am so disappointed. I believe this is another huge loss for Kansas students and a big step backwards. To be honest, I was more than disappointed. I’ve had a whole range of emotions. First I was angry at the sly dealing of our legislature who don’t respect the recommendations of our Kansas Board of Education. The next emotion was sadness. Sadness about what these continual hits to our education system means for our state and more sadly to the children in our state who deserve so much better. My final thoughts were, why stay in Kansas? I love my home state, but our economy, growth, and education are in serious trouble and nothing seems to be changing with the current legislature in office. It may be best to get out when I can. This thought especially entices me when I am in the midst of traveling. I often feel proud of our public schools, the hard work of our school districts, and the quality students in Kansas, especially as learn about other schools; however, I am not proud of the decisions being made for the future of our public schools and it makes me wonder if staying in this state is a good idea.

From the beginning of its implementation Common Core has been highly politicized and misunderstood. To be honest, I was opposed to it at first mainly because I was confused by the purpose and I didn’t understand some of the educational jargon associated. However, now that I have spent multiple years implementing and learning about these new standards I am a strong proponent of the Common Core or KCCRS and I hope to explain why the Common Core has my support.

First, it  is confusing that the Common Core Standards are often called a curriculum. They are not a curriculum. They are a set of standards, a document that tells the topics that should be taught at each level and to which level of mastery. A curriculum is the textbook, materials, instructional strategies, and programs that a school district uses to teach those standards. There are many different types of curriculum out there, some are great, others are not so great. They all claim to be aligned to CCSS. Those “hokey math” strategies, as representative John Bradford called it, the ones you see in memes or posted from angry parents on Facebook, they are not the Common Core. They are examples of the curriculum materials the school or teacher chose to use.

In every Common Core math document, I have ever read, students are required to “compute using the standard algorithm,” which means use the standard efficient strategy, the one we all learned, for solving the subtraction or multiplication, or whatever operation. The beauty of the Common Core is that is also requires that students understand “why” the algorithm works and be able to explain the concept. How many of you can explain why you multiply by the reciprocal of the divisor when you divide fractions? Could you explain it to a peer or draw a model of it? Could you construct a viable argument to support your answer? I know that I couldn’t have done this when I was a 6th grader, nor did I understand the concept, I just did the procedure. My students can do this though. That’s not “hokey math” that simply understanding math and it is my favorite part of the Common Core. Some of the new methods for showing understanding are scary, especially for parents who are stuck in the homework battle late at night with their kids. I will be the first to admit that schools need to do more to support families through these changes. However, the answer is working forward, not throwing out the standards. When I began teaching the Math in Focus curriculum  that my school district uses, which emphasizes the use of bar modeling, I had to learn some new methods. Most parents with children in USD #383 who hope to help their kids with bar modeling also had to spend some time learning bar modeling as well. However, now that I know bar modeling I wish I had known it all along. This is an opportunity for better math instruction all around, let’s not miss it. Also, I find that the students catch on much quicker than the adults do. Their minds are more more flexible. This flexibility of thinking is crucial for success in math. I’ve posted some links to videos that explain this idea better than I can.

Another misconception of Common Core is that it is a national curriculum. Believe me, I understand the push back to the idea of a national curriculum and I wouldn’t support the idea in the US, but the CCSS are not a national curriculum. If you want to see a real national curriculum you should check out Singapore. Every part of the education system is dictated by the Ministry of Education. This would never work in the US and its not an idea I support. Common Core, thankfully, is not a curriculum and its certainly not causing a national curriculum. US states, school districts, and teachers still have all of the control on how a topic is taught. Common Core only dictates the topics the need to be taught and at which level.

Common Core State Standards are much more comparable to the rest of the world’s standards. The standards our state used before KCCRS were terrible in comparison. They had too much content at each level and not enough depth of understanding. I recently read a 2005 report by the American Institute for Research which compares the US to Singapore. This same conclusion was made. I believe the CCSS answered those troubling findings and was a huge step forward for our nation, yet our state insists on moving backwards. I’ve linked the report below if you are interested in reading it. I can also share copies of the Kansas Standards pre Common Core if you would like to compare them to KCCRS. There really is no comparison. CCSS are much much better and I’m convinced anyone who takes the time to study them would see that. We live in a society that is becoming more and more global. This small town Kansas girl who is spending a semester in Singapore is evidence of that. Our students need to be academically competitive with the rest of the world, and with other states in the US. Taking away standards that require rigor and understanding of mathematics is moving in the wrong direction of that goal.

For six years, maybe a few less depending on how quickly they were implemented by districts, the CCSS have been the standards used in our schools. That time spent in implementation of these standards is not nothing for Kansas schools and Kansas teachers. For all teachers who have poured hard work into CCSS implementation this is a rug pulling from beneath your feet kind of move. Personally, in the last four years I have worked towards my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a math emphasis. My courses emphasized the research behind CCSS and allowed me to improve professionally. I have also worked on my school district’s vertical alignment team to make sure that our district curriculum met the requirements of CCSS. I’ve sat through hours and hours of professional development. I spent my weeknights and weekends developing lesson plans, materials, pacing guides and so much more. I am currently spending five months in Singapore doing research in math education in which a central focus is comparing Singapore methods with US reform through CCSS. That is just an example of the work I have done. Imagine when you compound that with all Kansas Teachers. That is not nothing. Kansas legislatures need to know what their thoughtless and one-sided actions mean for Kansas schools and teachers. Ultimately, I didn’t spend my effort and time for Common Core. I spent my time for the betterment of my students and that part I wouldn’t change. However, Kansas legislators are unbalanced if they think that all of this work, by me and so many teachers like me, can and should simply be redone in time for the next school year.

The control of educational standards decisions needs to remain in the hands of the Kansas Board of Education. They are elected officials after all. This is not a decision for politicians, who are not experts in education. For a congress that hates “big-government control” they sure know to involve themselves in issues that are out of their jurisdiction, taking the control away from the local board of education and school districts. How can they outlaw Common Core and in the same breath say they want to give the control over standards to the school district? What if the school district wants to use the Common Core? I personally know the committee of math teacher leaders who work with the board of education team on all things Common Core. I’ve been invited to join the team and plan to, once I return from Singapore. I can tell you without any hesitation that it is teachers and educational experts who have helped the Kansas Board of Education. Why isn’t their expertise valued by congress?

The house bill #2292 would outlaw anything aligned to Common Core standards. This means that all textbooks, worksheets, lesson plans that were made to align with KCCRS are now outlawed. An even bigger problem is that now international tests, AP classes, bachelorette competitions, ACT and SAT tests, online classes for homeschoolers, all of which have been aligned to CCSS, are now outlawed and needed to be recreated for Kansas. This is a major problem that our legislature thinks will solve itself. The Kansas School board has said that to create new standards would take two years and $9 million dollars. Last time I checked Kansas is not willing to give one more iota of money to education and we don’t have two years before the 2017 proposed deadline. What materials should schools then use? Did congress budget the additional cost for all school districts to purchase new textbooks, new materials, and host more professional development for the new, two-years in the making, non-existent, “non-common core standards”? Is Kansas planning to foot the bill for recreating tests and programs that currently align with Common Core? This bill is unrealistic and would cripple Kansas Schools even more than they are already being crippled by budget cuts and increased class sizes. Even if you are unsure of your support of Common Core, this reason alone should motivate you to oppose House Bill #2292. Also, by law the standards are up for review by the Kansas Board of Education in 2017, a process that has already started. The Congress is just being hasty.

In the end, JP and I are not leaving Kansas, not soon anyways. He is starting his PhD at K-State this summer and thankfully his cancer research is funded by the national government and not the state of Kansas, so the funding will likely last. However, we won’t commit to a state that is not committed to the future generations in that state or one that continues to make lousy choices for its schools. Please be informed about the Common Core and Kansas College and Career Ready Standards. Our state needs these standards and this reform to stick around.

If you are interested in speaking out against this bill the following link will allow you to send an email to your representative: http://www.capwiz.com/nea/ks/issues/alert/?alertid=70944626&type=ST&show_alert=1

If you want to read more about this or see the KCCRS check out the link below:

Articles about the bill:

http://cjonline.com/news/state/2016-03-18/common-core-k-12-standards-get-boot-kansas-house-committee

http://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article61542957.html

Understanding Common Core Math Strategies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_CK1e0Lmxw

http://www.excelined.org/common-core-toolkit/old-standards-v-common-core-a-side-by-side-comparison-of-math-expectations/

http://www.businessinsider.sg/how-common-core-subtraction-works-2014-5/?r=US&IR=T#.Vu_0_hJ97Vo

Report from American Institute for Research:

http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED491632.pdf

Info about the math standards from Kansas State Department of Education:

http://community.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=5276

http://community.ksde.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=QCyk-55Rnu8%3d&tabid=5276&mid=13067

http://www.nctm.org/standards-and-positions/common-core-state-standards/teaching-and-learning-mathematics-with-the-common-core/

House Bill #2292: http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2015_16/measures/documents/hb2292_02_0000.pdf

Sugi, Indonesia

JP and I spent the weekend in paradise. It wasn’t your typical paradise, but it was so good for our souls. Living in the concrete jungle that is Singapore really makes us miss nature and outdoor adventures, but we got all of that and more this weekend in Sugi.

Sugi is a small island in the South China Sea that is part of Indonesia. We spent the weekend at Tellunas beach resort which was built by two American families in the native Indonesian architecture style. We stayed in a hut that was built out over the water. There was no internet, no TV, and no air conditioning (although it stayed very cool because we were above the water). The goal of the resort is to unplug, relax, and enjoy the island, which we certainly did! It was beautiful and very remote. In fact, there were only a few other families there the whole weekend.

There is a small village of about 1,000 people that live on Sugi and Tellunas intentionally trains, contracts, and hires locals. They pay well above minimum wage for the area and it is clear that the resort has had a very positive impact on the poor island communities nearby. You could also see that the employees love working at Tellunas. JP asked our guide if he liked his job, and you could see his face light up. We loved being a part of that as well.

So what were the highlights? First of all, getting there was an adventure. We took a ferry from Singapore to Batam. From Batam we were picked up by the Tellunas staff and taken to another boat. The boat was a traditional Indonesian wooden boat that fit five across. It was so much fun to take the hour and half boat ride through the Indonesian islands to Sugi. It is also so interesting to see the difference in lifestyle. Indonesia’s population is not much smaller than the US, but their land mass is much smaller. Most of Indonesia is water and the primary transportation is a motor boat. I like to imagine traveling from place to place by boat instead of by car. From Sugi going to the store, the hospital, or the nearest village to visit a friend requires jumping in a boat and sailing across the ocean.  While this reality isn’t the same in some of the larger islands like Sumatra and Java which are much more urban, it is still an interesting reality of rural life for many Indonesian villagers.

We also loved relaxing, enjoying nature, stepping out on the balcony to a view of the ocean. We ate great Indonesian food the whole weekend. We made friends with the staff and had many great conversations about life in Indonesia and life in the US. The staff were very friendly and we had many meaningful conversations.

Another highlight was taking a hike through the island of Sugi that ended at a waterfall. The hike took us through several small villages and up close with lots of forest flora and fauna like monkeys, some bugs, a rather large monitor, interesting ferns, tapped rubber trees and even a carnivorous pitcher plant. JP was especially impressed by the pitcher plant. He made sure I included that part. The waterfall was beautiful with fresh and clear black water. I know that sounds like it can’t be right, clear black water, but it was. The water was tinted black because of tea like leaves that fall into it. It was basically like swimming in a pool of tea. The top looked black but once you were in it it was very clear. We brought our goggles and could see 20 feet down, so deep that it faded to black. We also did a little cliff jumping, once our guides promised it was safe and that people do it all the time.

On Sunday we were invited to a special event. One of the Tellunas workers was getting married at the local village and they invited us to come along. We got to tour the village and watch a few hours of the Malay style wedding celebrations. We were treated very well and told that it was a great honor to the bride and groom to have westerners attend the wedding. It would be similar to having a celebrity attend your wedding. The whole experience was incredible and like nothing else we’ve experienced before.

Check out the pictures of the weekend and for anyone in the area we would highly recommend Tellunas.

 

 

 

 

We love Singapore

This weekend JP and I traveled to Malaysia. We stayed downtown in Malaysia’s capitol, Kuala Lumpur. The trip was fantastic and chock full of adventure. One highlight was meeting a Texas couple when we were out to dinner Friday night. They are spending two years in Malaysia while he works for Shell Oil Company. It was nice to have some interactions with Americans and make friends with those two. Another highlight was touring the Islamic Art Gallery and National Mosque of Malaysia. Malaysia is an Islamic nation and most Malays are Muslims. The guide on duty at the time was eager to talk to us about Islam and to share about her religion. She was very knowledgeable too. I respected how well she could articulate her beliefs and her reasons for those beliefs. She quoted verse after verse from the Quran.  She encouraged us to ask a lot of questions and we did. She encouraged questions about Christianity and we shared a little about our own beliefs. It was a surreal and meaningful encounter. We also went on a shopping spree to H&M because the conversion rate from ringgits to US dollars made everything about 65% off. The total in ringgits that showed up on the register was shockingly large!  We visited Batu caves and drove through Malaysia’s wild traffic in a hot pink compact car. It was an incredible adventure.

Even so, we were so excited to get home to Singapore on Sunday night. Being in Malaysia made us realize just how great Singapore really is. In honesty, Singapore’s strict laws, their orderly and efficient approach to everything, and their strictness to each policy has been annoying at times. However, after being in Malaysia I appreciate that part about Singapore so much more.  It means cleanliness and order, some of Malaysia’s streets were covered in trash and there were lots of unpleasant smells. It means efficiency and no government corruption. It means that I feel very safe walking alone in Singapore, even at night. In Malaysia, even when I was with JP we had to be careful about where we went at night and always cautious about the information we received from others. Singapore is very easy and welcoming to foreigners. In Malaysia we sometimes felt taken advantage of or that others were intentionally trying to confuse us in order to take advantage of our confusion. This would never fly in Singapore. Singapore faces problems head on and works hard for its citizens.

An example I can share with you about this head on approach happened on the day that I returned to Singapore after our trip to Malaysia. On Monday, Singapore schools were celebrating Singapore’s National Defense Day. This day commemorates the day that Singapore was overtaken by Japan during World War II. They commemorate this day in order to make students aware of their duty to protect their small island in hopes that nothing similar ever befalls Singapore again. I am now placed at Eunos Primary School and that morning they conducted a program to commemorate the day. During this program the staff and some students put on a skit about what students can do to keep Singapore safe. Among other examples, they went on to say that students should stay away from ISIS propaganda on social media and the internet because it distorts the true religion of Islam. They encouraged students to report friends or family who may be viewing these things as well. About 16% of Singaporeans are Muslim, so this propaganda is a real threat to the religious harmony that Singapore now enjoys. The propaganda is mostly targeted at the younger generation as well. I was at first shocked by the talk and then impressed that the school was taking such a proactive approach and discussing the topic openly.

Singapore is committed to its citizens and its ideals. The example I shared helps paint a picture of this commitment, and there are so many other examples. The cleanliness and safety of the island, the ease of public transportation, and money invested in the education of their people, are just a few others. Their commitment helps make Singapore so successful. We are very happy to call this little island our home for the next four months.

A day in the life of Tao Nan Primary School

I would like to give you a picture of what I have observed during my four week stay at Tao Nan Primary School in Singapore.  I aimed to write this objectively, just telling the facts of how the school operates and giving the reader the chance to imagine the differences from your own school experiences. Many of the structures I see at Tao Nan are very different from the structures at my own school, but many qualities are the same as well. Not everything I see here makes sense in the US context, but there is also much to be learned by seeing how another school operates and solves problems. I find that it opens my mind to solutions that I wouldn’t have seen before. So I ask that you read with wonder, not judgement. Imagine what could work instead of what would never work.

Tao Nan Primary School is primarily a Chinese heritage school which emphasizes the Chinese culture and values. As such, most students who attend are Chinese and the school doesn’t reflect the same diversity that you see in the rest of the country. All schools in Singapore teach five core subjects: math, English, mother tongue (the native language of the child’s parents), social studies, and science. All subjects are taught in English expect for mother tongue. At Tao Nan they only offer mandarin as a mother tongue. Tao Nan is a high performing school, and it’s pupils consistently scores very high on their national exams and win competitions in math.

At Tao Nan, like all elementary schools in Singapore, they have grades one through six. In Singapore it is called primary one (P1) through primary six (P6). All of the Kindergarten and pre-school classes are run independently and paid for by parents. Even so, most students have two years of “pre-primary” before entering primary one. The 2016 school year is just beginning for Singapore schools as their school year begins in January and ends in December. Tao Nan is a very popular school with a very larger enrollment. There are over 2,000 students enrolled P1- P6. As a result of the large enrollment the school is divided into two sessions. P3- P6 classes attend school during the morning session which begins at 7:30 AM and ends at 1:00PM. The afternoon session is for P1 and P2; it begins at 1:30PM and ends at 6:30PM. Tao Nan is a very popular school and getting a spot at the school is often very competitive.  Some parents start volunteering for the school two years before their child enters P1 in order to increase their child’s chance of getting selected. The average class size is around 30 or 40 pupils. I recently taught a lesson to a P5 class of 40 and it was very strange to have so many in one class. I’ve also sat in on P2 classes with 29 excited little students. Thirty is the cap for P1 and P2 classes in Singapore. Tao Nan is one of Singapore’s schools to house their gifted education program. Any student in Singapore who scores in the top 10% of the nation on the placement exams is relocated to one of the gifted schools starting at P4. At Tao Nan the gifted students are placed in a separate class and students are accelerated in all subjects. Right now there are three gifted education classes in each P4, P5, and P6 level.

The school is very large and has all open corridors. It is the tropics after all. There are multiple connected towers, called blocks that house the varying grade bands. The highest one has seven floors. Teachers get to use the lift, but students must use the stairs. The classrooms are all open and are not air-conditioned, but they have lots of ceiling fans and windows so it actually doesn’t feel too bad despite Singapore’s heat and humidity. The Singapore students I have spoken with were quick to ask and jealous to learn that my classroom in the states is air-conditioned.

The teachers at Tao Nan have a giant workroom with cubicles and desks. I was even given my own cubicle to use temporarily. This is where teachers keep all of their materials. While my classroom is my primary work spot at home, the teacher work room and cubicle is a Singapore teacher’s primary work spot. When it is time to teach they carry their materials to the class they will teach during that period. The same teacher might be assigned to teach three or four sections of P5 English, meaning they teach math to 3 or 4 of the 9 or 10 P5 classes. The students are assigned a classroom and stay in the same classroom for the entire day. A different teacher comes during each period to teach each subject. It’s this way even in the P1 and P2 classrooms, although they have less subjects. Teachers in Singapore are all required to be specialized in at least two subjects and may have their teaching assignment changed each year to meet the needs of the school. Each classroom is assigned a “form teacher” who is in charge of administrative duties like attendance for a given class. The classes also have student leaders who keep the class quiet while they wait for the next teacher to arrive. Although in the P1 and P2 classes the teachers don’t leave the students unattended until the next teacher arrives. When a new teacher arrives to the classroom the students stand and greet the teacher by saying, “good morning/ afternoon Mrs. Sibbitt.” Before the teacher leaves the students stand again and say, “thank you and goodbye Mrs. Sibbitt.” They also bow while doing this.

The students in Singapore are streamed beginning in P5, meaning that students are grouped into classes according to academic level. At each grade level there is usually one or two high level class, four or five middle ability classes, and one or two classes for lower achieving students. The pace is modified for the classes to meet the student’s needs. In some cases, students can take a “foundations” math course, instead of the “standard” stream. Students who take the foundations level have scored below 20% on end of the year exams and spend the time reviewing and going at a slower pace to ensure that they have the foundational math skills they need to continue. Usually the students in the foundations stream have less choices once they enter secondary school. Despite the large class sizes, I observed one foundations math course which only had two students in the class. Singapore is working towards more inclusion of special needs students in the classrooms, but currently there are far fewer special needs students in the regular classrooms than what one would see in the US. Those that are included are provided an allied educator, similar to our para educators.

Following the school day, all P3- P6 students are required to be involved in a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA). These CCAs are organized and run by teachers. In fact, all teachers are required to run at least one CCA. Some of Tao Nan’s top CCAs are badminton, sailing, Chinese dance, and Chinese heritage club. The CCAs are held two days per week. One day a week students are also asked to stay behind for enrichment classes. This is two extra hours of instruction in two of the five subjects. Enrichment is mandatory. Most students also have tuition (tutoring) each day. It is not a requirement of the school, but a majority of the parents choose to pay for outside tuition for their children. From what I have observed students are also given quite a bit of homework each night, so they stay very busy after school.

One last thing to note is lunch. Students eat lunch in the canteen following their dismissal at 1:00. It is just like a cafeteria except in the canteen there are seven to eight different food stall for students to choose from. It is similar to a mall food court where you can choose where to eat and then sit down in a common area once you have your food. Students who eat at the canteen bring cash every day to buy their lunch and the lunches are very cheap $2-3 Singapore dollars ($1.40- $2.10 USD). The food is very tasty too.

I have learned so much by observing at Tao Nan. I am continually asking myself why I believe what I do about how education should be run. This experience is definitely making me rethink a lot and also encourages me to continue seeking what is best in the US context. As I learn and reflect I hope to give some insight into my thoughts regarding some of the differences I see and what the US can learn, especially ones that are more controversial like tracking and high stakes testing. For now, please ask questions if you have them or do your own research. There is still so much to be learned in the field of education.