Imagine an elementary school room where every kid holds a wireless tablet in hand, able to instantly access the Internet…where a reading circle forms a ring of children from nearly twenty nations…where students are challenged to become “agents for change.”
Walk into Karen Walsh’s fifth grade class and this imagined scenario becomes real.
Karen teaches at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Hanoi, Vietnam. She and her colleagues set and supervise a special stage for learning.
A native of Stonybrook (Long Island) New York , Karen will soon begin her fourth year at UNIS. She teaches all subjects in English. Her students are multi-lingual. In addition to speaking their parents’ native languages, Karen’s fifth graders also study French. This past year, Karen’s class of 20 included Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Singaporean, Indian, Aussie, Dutch and American children.
Her classroom is its own International Festival and Karen’s skills make for attention-getting instruction. “I use a variety of strategies to get students to stay focused and on task, but I have many benefits in this process.” she explains. “My students are privileged in many ways. Our K – 12 school is well-funded and private. Many but not all of our students are daughters and sons of government employees. I’ve had some students who are the children of ambassadors. The kids’ parents strongly support our education initiatives. Home and school pretty much see eye to eye.”
Karen’s enthusiasm for her work in Vietnam is palpable. “We have access to amazing resources and the UNIS curriculum is concept-based, an approach that I like very much.”
Enthusiasm for teaching drives Karen. Her smile is contagious; her eyes sparkle when she describes her passion for content – the nuts and bolts of her curriculum. “Fifth grade is a wonderful grade to teach because kids who are ten and eleven are old enough to grasp sophisticated concepts, but still young enough to be sweet (most of the time), eager to learn, and open to new thinking.”
Karen’s door to teaching opened at a very young age…Even as a young child, Karen knew that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. At first Karen was certain that she’d teach 2nd grade. “For fun after school, I’d set up my own imaginary classroom and teach,” she recalls. “My mom was a secretary for an attorney and she’d make copies of the worksheets I created!” Wow, talk about supportive environments! Karen says that her older sister also became a teacher. Her uncle is an honors history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He traveled and lived abroad for ten years; his career has played a role in Karen’s decision to teach in Vietnam.
But Karen’s family hasn’t been her only source of inspiration to pursue teaching. “I had amazing teachers when I was in school,” she says.
Karen especially remembers Mrs. McCready, her 4th grade teacher. “She was always cool.” Karen tells a story about Mrs. McCready; it’s one with international connections. “Mrs. McCready had us exchanging letters with pen pals in England. One day she announced that our pen pals would be visiting; they’d be guests in our homes.” Karen laughs as she describes her pen pal. “I was horrified because he was a boy!” Still, she enjoyed the experience. “We took our pen pal guests to Washington, DC and to see a Mets’ baseball game. We had pool parties, lots of fun.”
Fast forward through the years since Karen was in elementary school; welcome to a world with technologies hardly imagined twenty years ago. “Technology has allowed me to do this; to teach in Vietnam,” Karen firmly states. “There’s no way that I would have accepted a teaching position overseas if I didn’t have the technologies that allow me to stay connected with my family and friends.”
“Friends forever,” that’s how Karen describes ACE, a group of associates in Raleigh, NC with whom Karen worked prior to teaching in Vietnam. She enjoys keeping in touch
with her ACE friends. “ACE stands for Accountability, Coaching, Encouragement. We focus on goals, help each other embrace broader thinking, and boost morale in the face of disappointments.”
After completing college in Florida, Karen met temporary disappointment when the principal at her first elementary school, Westwood International Baccalaureate Magnet School in West Palm Beach, advised Karen to transfer from 2nd grade to 5th grade. “Once I made the transition, I never looked back,” she says.
Karen found a good match with fifth grade, but then she encountered a fast-changing school system where, as Karen describes it, behavioral management overshadowed instruction. This dynamic prompted Karen to consider “turning over a new leaf” and teaching overseas.
In Hanoi, Karen jumps on a motorbike and drives a short distance to a school that’s thousands of miles from her home but very close to her heart.
She’s pursuing her own continuing education while she teaches at UNIS; evidence that Karen clearly understands that effective education today has to embrace change. “Change is constant, so rather than just teaching skills,” she says, “we teach sustainable concepts. We teach for understanding, and we use innovative strategies to catch and keep students’ attention to help them reach goals.”
Next Thursday, look for International Festival of Attention-Grabbers – Vietnam Part II. Karen’s story will continue with a focus on the innovative tools and strategies that she and her colleagues employ at the United Nations International School in Hanoi.
Mid-Week Focus will be in a research mode tomorrow. Stop by on Monday for Attentionology for K – 5 Teachers.
Talk with you soon,
Barbara ♥ The Lovable Poet