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Educational Exchange

The benefits of global teacher-to-teacher engagement.

October 22, 2015

Aviva Halani, Instructor in Math

The benefits of global teacher-to-teacher engagement

By Genny Beckman Moriarty and Karen Ingraham

Over the years, Exeter’s faculty has fostered connections with other schools and educators at an increasingly rapid pace, as technology enables greater global engagement and dialogue. Often, these exchanges start with a single conversation or the desire on one teacher’s part to make a difference, and they evolve into classroom visits and formal workshops, professional development programs and curriculum changes — meaningful and progressive impact felt by educators and students alike. The momentum of these connections snowballs to other teachers at other schools in different countries, and the resulting upswell of collaborations yields further discovery and growth.

Meet two educators, an Exeter math instructor and a principal at an international school in Egypt, whose different experiences nevertheless reflect a commonality of purpose among educators who are working to provide every student with access to the best possible educational environment.

JARED HARRIS, PRINCIPAL
CAIRO AMERICAN COLLEGE, CAIRO, EGYPT

Jared Harris recently installed his school’s first Harkness table, but it wasn’t a first for him. Little more than a year ago, Harris was principal at an international school in Santiago, Chile, where he worked closely with Math Instructor and Bates-Russell Distinguished Faculty Professor Tom Seidenberg and other Exeter faculty to help his teachers successfully adapt Harkness methods into their classrooms. Below, Harris talks about his ”mission to bring student-centered learning to the entire international school community.”

Q: How did you first learn about the Harkness method?
Harris: As a former child and family therapist, I knew the necessity of actively engaging kids — growth was dependent on it. Part of my normal treatment plan was the assigning of homework followed by discussion during our 50-minute meeting, known as cognitive behavioral therapy. I have often wondered if the Harkness method was not partially grounded in psychology.

In 2003 I made a career shift to counseling in the International School System. In my first years as an educator, I was baffled by the overall passive nature of the learning process. In counseling, little if any growth would happen if a student was a passive participant in therapy; I surmised that this must also be true in the classroom.

Although I witnessed all sorts of classroom instructional methods, one thing was clear: Students needed to be more engaged, to talk more. In early 2010, I therefore embarked on a search for an educational pedagogy based more on students’ active engagement in the learning process. It was easy to find resources referencing Socratic methods, but for me they were still too centered on the teacher.

Eventually, I found a 2009 article written by Exeter instructor Meg Foley and [then instructor] Lawrence Smith about using Harkness in a history class. After I read the article, I would never think the same way about teaching again.

Following a random search of Exeter faculty emails, I sent off three notes. To my disbelief, within about five hours I received a warm and welcoming response! A few months later, Tom Seidenberg was leading interdisciplinary Harkness discussions with our faculty at the International School Nido de Aguilas, a pre-K-12 international school in Santiago, Chile, with over 1,700 students from 50 different countries.

The next year we had our first three Harkness tables. Within four years — with student, faculty and parent support — we had committed to the Harkness method in our humanities classes and rolled out more than 20 Harkness tables.

I left Nido in June 2014, en route to Cairo American College (CAC) in Cairo, Egypt. One of the most desirable factors in relocating was the openness and dedication that the students, faculty and administration showed toward student-centered methods during my interview visits the previous year. Even though not one individual had heard of Harkness, they were excited to explore new teaching methods. I left several copies of the Exeter faculty-written book, Respecting the Pupil, for the CAC faculty to read.

Q: What do you see as the greatest strength of student-centered learning pedagogies like the Harkness method?
Harris: The world is rapidly changing at a pace that is both exciting and alarming. I have lived on three continents over the past 13 years, working in three very different educational systems. Being a father to three young ”third culture kids,” I am aware of the skills that will be required in the coming years as our young ones prepare to engage with the world. At the most simplistic level, it is all about communication. Students, including my children, are going to have to be proficient communicators. Creativity is important, collaboration is important, critical inquiry is important, but they all rely on communication. This is what Harkness does. It requires thinking, reflection, flexibility, empathy and being comfortable with uncertainty; but it all comes back to communication. The kids take the driver seat; they must deliver a message. This is where schools around the world are still failing our youth by not adopting student-centered methods. Many are producing smart kids who cannot communicate.

Student-centered learning provides the foundation for so many skills that will be required by our students in the coming decades: critical inquiry, communication, accepting divergence of ideas, operating in the gray area, ”doing” instead of ”knowing,” cross-cultural communication, and the list goes on. It is the predominant interaction that our international teachers need to be having with students.

I heard in Chile, and am now hearing again in Egypt, ”Dr. Harris, I love the new tables. They make me feel important and smarter.” This is the greatest strength of the Harkness method. [It] is empowering, and it gives voice to our youth, irrelevant of nationality or languages spoken.

Q: What has been your approach to educating faculty about student-centered learning?
Harris: It is all about conversation. My commitment to my faculty, to my students, to my parents is simple: The most important things that I do every day are to listen and to engage them in conversation. In the hallways, on the stage, on the playing fields and in the classroom we talk. It’s dialogical leadership — leadership through conversation. In the international school setting, most schools are bombarded by a never-ending stream of the newest educational initiatives, typically driven by No Child Left Behind research. Add in a transient student, faculty and administrative culture, and institutionalizing change is nearly impossible.

I tried to shelter the faculty from the ”initiative-of-the-month club,” carefully keeping our focus directed at transforming our classrooms into truly student-centered environments. Desks were moved into horseshoe arrangements, then into circles, then into ovals. The first Harkness table arrived, and the energy it created among the faculty was remarkable.

I carefully designed professional development opportunities to support student-centered learning. Exeter faculty came to Nido (and [come to] CAC now) each year to train our faculty, and I sent my faculty to the Exeter Humanities Institute and the Anja S. Greer [Conference on Mathematics] each spring on Exeter’s campus.

Q: Why is having Harkness-like tables in the classrooms so important to you?
Harris: For Harkness to work, it involves a complete commitment. What the table does is transformational. Immediately upon entering the Harkness classroom, the ethos is palpable. Unlike desks, the table cannot be taken apart to go back to traditional teacher- centered habits. It provides a connective energy, while the white space that remains between students when desks are placed in a circle creates a subtle barrier.

Q: How have you adapted the student-centered model for your school communities?
Harris: I have very strategically involved students and faculty in the process of implementing student-centered teaching in Santiago and in Cairo, and I never ”mandated” the approach. I have been lucky to have a parent community in both countries who placed enormous faith in my philosophy. Moreover, having a head of school and board of trustees who trusted my message was paramount. I have always kept a realistic picture, and have been clear in communicating that we are creating our own hybrid-Harkness teaching environment.

Due to our international schools’ transient populations, and the large and somewhat prescriptive nature of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, there is a time and place for other instructional methods, including limited direct instruction and other more traditional teacher-centered methods. I have empowered those amazing lecturers to keep lecturing, but to also inject a healthy dosage of Harkness.

In Chile, each year that we committed more to Harkness, each indicator on our school quality indicator improved: Test scores went up, student interest increased and college acceptances to elite institutions increased. These measurements indicated that the Harkness method is an effective approach to teaching in international schools driven both by an American educational model and the external testing requirements from the IB.

Q: How do you see your mission playing out in the near future and the long term?
Harris: I am very optimistic about the changes occurring in international education. I frequently communicate with like-minded educators who are deeply committed to implementing student-centered methods in K-12 international school settings. Every year, more teachers are being exposed to progressive educational practices at conferences like NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) and institutes like the Exeter Humanities Institute. In addition, there are more and more high-profile former U.S. independent school heads moving on to headships in international schools. Harkness tables are popping up slowly at international schools, too; the momentum is building. I am excited to continue working with Exeter faculty in implementing student- centered teaching around the world, from Chile to Egypt, and soon enough I hope to continue to Ghana, Kenya and other developing countries. Our schools around the world need student-centered methods, and our children deserve it.

AVIVA HALANI
INSTRUCTOR IN MATH, PHILLIPS EXETER ACADEMY

This past summer, Math Instructor Aviva Halani traveled to South Africa and Swaziland with Teachers Across Borders Southern Africa (TABSA), an international organization that sends teams of math and science teachers to provide professional development and curriculum support to their peers in rural southern Africa. Halani reflects here on the rewards of that partnership.

Q: Tell us about Teachers Across Borders Southern Africa and the work that they do.
Halani: Teachers Across Borders Southern Africa is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization of educators from the United States, South Africa and Canada. This organization originally started 15 years ago in an attempt to help South African teachers, mostly those who had grown up during apartheid when they weren’t allowed to study math and science beyond a certain level due to their skin color. Now, some of these teachers are attempting to teach subjects they never formally learned. TABSA coordinates with ministries of education in Southern Africa to run weeklong workshops on middle and high school math and science topics. Teachers in the district provide TABSA with lists of topics they have trouble teaching and the TABSA workshop leaders align their lessons to national standards.

Q: What was your personal connection to the work you did with TABSA?
Halani: My parents grew up in rural eastern Africa in conditions similar to those I observed this summer. My dad grew up in Uganda and was forced to leave as a refugee in 1972. My mom grew up in Tanzania and left in ’74. Starting at age 6, she was sent away to a home stay in a different town because her village’s one-room school had shut down. I actually met up with my parents and my brother in east Africa after my southern Africa leg. Neither of my parents had been back since they left. Seeing the town  where my mom was born was eye-opening for me.

My parents have always instilled in me the importance of education, saying that it is one thing that can never be taken away from a person. From them, I internalized the value of education, but to a certain extent, I took mine for granted. Seeing the limited access to educational opportunities that my South African and Swazi colleagues had, pushed me to reflect on my own background. I came away from my travels with a greater appreciation for the opportunities I’ve had and with renewed passion for increasing educational access for others. At the same time, the commitment our southern African colleagues have for their profession and their students continues to inspire me. Like them, I will seek out new learning opportunities in order to be the best teacher I can be for my students at Exeter.

Q: What did your trip encompass?
Halani: I spent three weeks in southern Africa: one in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa and two in Swaziland. It was winter in southern Africa and the teachers who attended our workshops were giving up some of their winter break to join us. We had three math teachers and three science teachers on the TABSA team running daily sessions. In Mpumalanga, we worked directly with about 250 local teachers for several hours a day. The sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers were split into different groups who then rotated through various sessions, so I ended up covering the same material a few times each day.

The next two weeks in Swaziland were supported in part by funding from UNICEF and were hosted at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) campus. There, we spent a few days training master teachers who then led workshops for another batch of teachers with our support. The idea is that these master teachers would be able to run workshops after we left. Teachers came from around the country and many stayed on the UNISWA campus. The first week was with high school teachers and the second was with teachers from grades 5 through 7.

Q: How did you prepare for the workshops before you arrived in South Africa?
Halani: The teachers in the districts we were visiting provided lists of priority topics that they had trouble teaching. The three members of our team divvied up those topics and put together relevant worksheets, to be combined into booklets that would be handed out at our workshops. Many of the concepts I had from the list of priority topics are not ones I teach in my own classes, so I scoured the South African Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement and Swazi curriculum to understand exactly what the teachers were supposed to know, and I researched what the current educational journals recommend for best practices in those domains. I wanted my worksheets to be problem-based so the teachers could see how students could derive the formulas they need through heavily scaffolded problems and class discussion, as they do here at Exeter. I was continually adding problems and then struggled to trim everything down. It is expensive to print the workshop booklets for all of the participants, so each instructor was given a 10-page limit for printed materials, although luckily we were given quite a bit of leeway on what we could provide on a CD. Many of the participants asked for extra copies of the CDs. During my stay in South Africa and Swaziland, I was struck by just how much creativity is required of teachers working within the confines of limited resources.

Q: Were there any notable moments or exchanges you’d like to share with us?
Halani: I have rarely felt as proud or as fulfilled, when thinking about why I chose to teach, as when Thuli, one of the older Swazi math teachers, told me that our sessions had changed their lives. Although she did seem appreciative of the manipulatives I had devised to teach long division, I doubt she was referring to anything I had done in particular. Instead, I think she was referencing the environment and opportunity we had created. She and her peers had a chance to think deeply about the content they were teaching and discuss the best ways to teach such material. We may have guided the conversation, but they were the driving force. They were the ones making most of the connections, between concepts and with one another. Through those discussions, the teachers seemed empowered to do similar work on their own in the future, and they demonstrated their ability when they led the workshops the next day. So far this seems to be working: I recently received an email from one of the Swazi high school teachers thanking me for our work and telling me about the success of a recent workshop he had run using my materials.

Q: How would you describe the connections you made during your stay?
Halani: I had a great time with the rest of the TABSA team and felt lucky to be a part of such an amazing group of educators. I value the connections I made with my southern African colleagues and am more grateful than ever for the resources available to both teachers and students here on campus. I learned some great tools for teaching certain math concepts from the discussions I had with them. Most do not have good Internet access, but they do have Internet-enabled phones. Thanks to social media, several have friended me on Facebook and a few have messaged me asking for ways to introduce certain topics or how to help their students distinguish between two types of transformations. I enjoy serving as a mentor and a friend to these teachers. We will hopefully continue to stay in touch and see each other on future trips.

Q: Why do you feel that you came away from the trip a better teacher?
Halani: I was not only pushed to think deeply about material I don’t often teach, but from the beginning, I was impressed and inspired by our colleagues’ devotion to their students and their desire to improve as educators. Many of these teachers are aware that their content knowledge is not as solid as it could be because they have not had equal access to education — which I believe is a fundamental right. Recognizing that the deeper our understanding is of a topic, the better we are able to explain it to others, the South African and Swazi teachers absorbed anything and everything we could share with them. They wanted to learn as much as they could in order to best serve their learners. No matter what challenges they face in their daily classes, they remain committed to doing whatever they can to help their students learn.

These teachers are my role models. I am motivated by their dedication to seek out opportunities for my own growth as an educator and committed to attending conferences so that I can continue to expand my knowledge of the best practices in the field of mathematics, in order to best serve my own students. I’m ready to learn about new educational technologies that could help our students make better connections between various concepts, and I am eager to discover and explore stimulating problems and activities that will push our students further.