First Week Tools


The first week of the semester just wrapped and it was a great five days of community-building, goal setting and new learning.  My class is a mix of lo-tech kinesthetic activities and social media tools, all with the same purpose of promoting language acquisition and building student confidence. In addition to my usual repertoire of yoga, vocal warm-ups, bhangra dance and post-it activities, I experimented with some new tech tools, and we all really enjoyed them. I'd like to share 4 easy-to-use platforms that made it a satisfying first week of classes. They are Animoto, Remind, FlipGrid and Kahoot.


1. Before classes started I created a simple Welcome Video on Animoto and shared it with them in the first day. It gave the students a visual of who I am and what I care about. And on "Chocolate Friday" I quizzed them on some details in the video. The winners got a chocolate treat. 


Remind announcement from me to my students, with a homework reminder and a photo from the class.

Remind announcement from me to my students, with a homework reminder and a photo from the class.

2. On the second day of classes I had students join our Remind group. Remind us a great tool for staying connected with students individually and as a class. It's a quick and easy way to share announcements, send links, and share photos, without needing emails or phone numbers.


The Flipgrid interface for mobile phones.

The Flipgrid interface for mobile phones.

3. Flipgrid is my new favorite tool. It seems teachers everywhere have got #flipgridfever ! This online tool allows students to easily record and share videos of themselves on a topic created by the teacher, creating a video grid of the group. The students took to it right away, assisted each other and found fun features within the app that I hadn't yet discovered! We'll be using this weekly in our class, maintaining a video library of student progress. 

And also fun: I was selected to as a Flipgrid Certified Educator. This means I'll be in a cohort of other educators, from around the country, even from other countries, sharing innovative ways to use the tool with our learners. 


This week's Kahoot screen.

This week's Kahoot screen.

4. Since I now have a "smart classroom" I can easily use Kahoot, an educational online gaming platform. It's super easy to create your own games to review material covered in class. This week's Kahoot was a quiz about their teacher, based on my Animoto video. They competed in teams. And the top 3 teams got...chocolate, of course!

How was your first week? What tools did you use? How did you buiid community with your learners?


Back to School


It's that season again. The chilly SF fog is rolling in, the days are slowly getting shorter, and the sidewalks are full of French tourists. It's back to school time, my favorite time of year. The weeks leading up to a new semester I start reflecting on what matters to me in the learning environments that I create with my students. Here are a few ponderings, as I prepare for the most important week of the term.


1. The Learners. Who are these people? I want to know about them, and I want them to get to know each other. By the end of Week 1 I will know all of their names, and I challenge them to know each else's names too. here are they from? What is their learning background? How long have hey been in SF? What do they love to do? We spend a full week learning names, with correct spelling and pronunciation, and doing introductions. And I introduce myself and share my hopes for our class. We will be together for 18 weeks. We are a Learning Community.

2. The needs. Why are they here? What do they need from this class and how will they achieve that? They collaborate to set short and long-term learning goals for the class and start to create their own strategies, for in and out of class, to meet their goals. In addition, we share our mutual needs for respect, for patience, for punctuality, for consistency, for friendliness, and we agree collectively on the kind of learning environment we are creating together.

3. The space. Right away I get the students out of their seats. They change partners, they form groups, they mingle, they stretch, we do yoga and we dance. As much as possible I want the students looking at one another and not at me. I try to move from the front of the room and meet them individually where they are, listening to them, supporting them, seated while talking to them if they are sitting, standing if they are moving around the room.

4. Engagement.  How can I make the material meaningful for these learners, so they stay curious and engaged? What I have done in the past that has worked well? How canI update? What new ideas can I try? What new technology tools can I incorporate? How can I share what I am learning myself into this learning environment? These 2 weeks, before classes start, are my time to reflect and dream.


I tell my students the first day of classes that I have the best job ever. Being with a mix of people from around the world, learning a new language, taking time out of their busy lives to improve themselves...what a dream. After 26 years of teaching I still feel that way.


This Summer I was in the mountains on a month-long silent retreat, sleeping out under the stars. We were 30 people, living in community, doing all the work, from chopping vegetables and serving our meals, to mopping the floors and scrubbing the toilets.  


As a language teacher it is so interesting to be with other people without speaking. To just be. Silence allows space around the space. It allowed ease in meditating 8 times a day. It allowed us to slow down, to embrace stillness. It allowed us to be in Nature, observing, appreciating, delighting.

It was demanding in the discipline, but the structure of our days led to ease. No phones, no screens, no media. Just bees in the lavender, ferns and moss on forest paths, dragonflies on the pond, families of deer and wild turkeys in fields of golden grass. 

I feel refreshed. Rejuvenated. Alive.  


LOST by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you. 


Educar. Agitar. Organizar.

Last Summer I was in Mexico, studying Spanish, taking yoga classes and practicing with our Buddhist sangha. My dear friend Diana Platas invited me to visit the UAEM campus where she teaches mostly first generation college students from agricultural families. Diana leads classes on environmental sustainability and these learners are motivated, curious and thoughtful. I was very inspired to hear their stories. 

As we were touring their campus tv station, managed cooperatively by students, I was asked to give an interview, about my project in India. As we spoke we made connections between these students in Mexico and ours in India, at Lokuttara Leadership Academy.  They are similarly from impoverished village areas, the schools are underfunded and poorly staffed, and they have few local role models. And still their families have supported and encouraged their education and they have found inner motivation to excel. Additionally, the discrimination and injustice  these indigenous communities face is similar to that faced by Dalit communities.

I am always interested to have conversations with young people who are committed to learning. That day on that small campus in the mountains was one of the highlights of my Mexican Summer. In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, "Educate. Agitate. Organize."

Last Summer with the UAEM students in Mexico.

Last Summer with the UAEM students in Mexico.

The Practice of Presenting

When I tell people that I teach, they often say, "Oh, nice. Summers off!" I wonder if non-teachers have any idea how many new ideas are generated in the Summer; learning new skill sets, preparing for future courses and submitting conference proposals. We are never really "off'!

One of the joys of Summers for me is dreaming up proposals. I adore presenting. It is an opportunity to reflect on what is alive in my teaching practice and what I might share with colleagues near and far.

Preparing a conference proposal is its own practice. This Summer I have been crafting a new proposal to present at SxSw EDU in Austin in March, 2018. My co-presenter is my friend and colleague Denise Maduli Williams. We have so much fun swapping ideas and then giving form to what we can't wait to share. Denise is an imaginative, compassionate, resourceful teacher and our collaborations are their own form of professional development for me! I've been lucky enough to have presented twice with Denise, at #CaTesol2016 and #SxSwEdu2017. And today we just completed our newest proposal for #SxSwEdu2018, called "Deep Learning Collaborative: Giving Every Student a Voice".

Take a look at the video for our proposal. We welcome your comments below, and a "like" on youtube! And here is the video we submitted last year, called "Serious Fun: Building a Learning Community". Presentations are serious fun!


Teaching Pride History

When I first started teaching at CCSF a young Korean student firmly told me that there were no homosexuals in his country. Just a few years later another Korean student, and his global classmates, were bringing photos to class from The Gay Pride parade. There has been an international cultural shift among young people and the conversation about LGBTQ identity has become more open. I have a male student who tells stories in class about his husband. And I also have other students who express a religious opinion that homosexuality is a sin. I know that I have LGBTQ students from across genders, across cultures, across class, across caste, and across abilities in my classes. I want them to know, without embarrassment, that they are seen and that they are safe in my class. 

The Gay Pride Movement is part of San Francisco's culture and people flock here from around the world to live in freedom. And so I have developed lessons, as part of my Civil Rights curriculum, on LGBTQ Rights as a Human Rights Issue. When approached this way, all students are able to connect to the universal desire to live in safety. And many look to the culture of their home country with new eyes and a fresh commitment to building LGBTQ movements there.

The NY Times did a beautiful series on Coming Out a few years ago, and my students were very moved by an interactive photo essay by John Albuquerque, a young man describing his life experience growing up gay in The Bronx. It is a very personal story and the students are moved by it. It easily led into a research assignment on the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth and best practices for preventing bullying and harassment. It made my students curious to know more about The Queer Resource Center on our campus and The SF LGBT Center in our city.

This set a frame for us, as a learning community, to explore LGBTQ protection as a commitment made by The United Nations. From there we explored some California history, studying Proposition 6 written in 1978 by State Senator John Briggs that would have prevented gays and lesbians from serving as public school teachers. And we studied the local boycott of orange juice in response to Anita Bryant and her proposal for a special referendum attacking LGBTQ rights. That gave us the foundation to understand the life and legacy of Harvey Milk, elected to the city's Board of Supervisors, who built coalitions across San Francisco communities to defeat John Briggs and Anita Bryant, activating a proud and resilient LGBTQ community where citizens could live without shame. There is so much rich history, from The riots at Compton's Cafe in San Francisco to Stonewall Riots in New York city, and beyond.

This weekend my city, San Francisco, celebrates its annual Pride Parade in style. The Rainbow Flag, a symbol of unity for the LGBTQ community was created here, and wherever you go this week you'll see this flag flying, as people from all over the world gather to celebrate the freedom to love. In this spirit of festivity,  as educators and lifelong learners, let's remember the vision, the courage and the love exemplified by those who fought for this moment of self-expression. Freedom of expression for LGBTQ folk is still a human rights issue and the safety of the LGBTQ community is still real. As educators and lifelong learner let's study this history, tell these stories in our classrooms with pride.

Connecting with Students Online: Interview with Ida Jones

At this week's Online Teachers Conference in Anaheim I spent time with veteran teacher Ida Jones, a Business Law Instructor from Fresno State University, who's been teaching online for 18 years. Ida told me about the strategies she uses for connecting with all her students and encouraging more reflection in both learning and teaching. And Ida spoke of what she is taking away from the 2017 conference to try in her own classes.




Building Online Communities: Interview with Michelle Pacansky-Brock

I had the very good fortune to participate in The Great Online Teachers Seminar in Anaheim this week, facilitated by Michelle Pacansky-Brock. Michelle teaches online, trains online teachers and works on creating best online teaching practices within the California Community College system. I asked Michelle what excites her about online teaching right now and about her impressions of the 2017 Online Teaching Conference.



Great Online Teaching

Spending this week in Anaheim attending the Online Teaching Conference, and today spent a whole day in a Great Online Teaching Seminar, led by Michelle Pocansky Brock. It was such a rich day! Michelle teaches online herself as well as teaching online teachers, and her emphasis is on building community and empowering students. As a learner here I was very inspired by the environment Michelle created. It was a spacious opportunity to learn from the wisdom of the group and to dig deeper into what we value as educators. In that space we were all re-inspired. I have so many practical ideas for creating online learning environments, with students both in SF and in India. Feeling nourished! 


Roma Education in Hungary

In 2008 I was invited by a Fulbright Scholar Eric Lopez, and his then-girlfriend (now wife!) Jenny Pichardo, to come visit and spend time at an amazing new school in a small Roma/Gypsy village in Sajokaza, northeast Hungary, called Dr. Amedkar High School. Eric was researching the education of Gypsy youth in Hungary, and he came across The Jai Bhim Network, an educational project created by Janos Orsos and Tibor Derdak. In his research on Dr. Ambedkar Eric found the website for Jai Bhim International, our project in India which is also inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, and we started corresponding, and then spending the Summer, in Budapest and in Sajokaza, together with the Jai Bhim Network team.

There are so many overlaps between the experience of the Dalits/ex-untouchable communities in India and the Roma/Gypsy communities in Hungary, in terms of historic oppression and modern-day discrimination. Dr. Ambedkar believed in youth and believed in the importance of education. His vision has inspired all of us in this new circle of global friends, our students, their families and their communities.

Dr. Ambedkar High School has grown since I visited 9 years ago. They have designed a flourishing Arts-based curriculum, their team has evolved, they now have teachers from their own community, and they have graduated 100 students. This is quite an accomplishment for a community where 1% of students finish secondary school, compared to 80% in the the rest of Hungary. Our friends have made a 40-minute documentary about the Jai Bhim Network and the students at Dr. Ambedkar High School, including a student named Igor, who has returned to high school at age 30, and will soon be graduating! Angry Buddha is another good film to watch to learn more about this innovative educational community.

Click on the photo below to see a slideshow of memories, from Budapest and Sajokaza.

Summer Learning

As a Teacher, I am always learning. This Summer one of my professional goals is to learn more about online learning and teaching, and so next week I am off to Anaheim for the 2017 Online Teaching Conference.

In preparation I am reading blogs, watching videos and scrolling through the websites of some of the leaders in the field of lifelong online education. In addition to creating online ESL courses, I imagine also teaching Buddhism, leading professional development workshops for our team in India, and creating online forums for fellow social entrepreneurs. I am learning so much about building community online. I am very excited to be a learner in a whole new content area. Beginner's Mind!



One of the things I love most about teaching is the cycle of the semester. Every semester has its own beginning, middle and end, and every class establishes itself as a unique learning community. Our Spring semester has now finished and Summer has begun! It is time for a new rhythm. I find Summers a very creative time. There is more daylight and more hours to enjoy. It's a season to do all the things I never have time for during the school year, such as unhurried afternoons with old friends,  long swims at my favorite rooftop pool, more playtime with the kittens, more time to cook healthy food, more time to disappear into a good book, more time for bike rides around my city, more time for out of town excursions. It is also a time to reflect on what went well during the past semester, what was challenging and what I might improve. It is truly a time of inspiration. What inspires you most this Summer?