Karen Walsh has traveled many miles, literally and figuratively, from her hometown of Stonybrook (Long Island), New York, to her current job in Hanoi, Vietnam.
In Vietnam’s second largest city, Karen will soon begin her fourth year teaching fifth grade at the United Nations International School (UNIS) that is located there.
Karen teaches all subjects in English.
Her students are multi-lingual and, as Karen describes them, extremely fortunate. One of the benefits that the kids in Karen’s class enjoy is parental support of quality education. “Everyone is pretty much on the same page in terms of academic goals for our students,” observes Karen, “and our school is a very well-funded private institution.” “We serve students from many different nations.”
This is a perfect plus for Karen, because she is passionate about international education and curriculum content – the “meat and potatoes” of teaching. Karen relishes the opportunities that UNIS offers her and her colleagues; opportunities that include accessing cutting-edge educational programs and state-of-the-art technologies.
“If you could visit my classroom,” Karen says smiling, “you’ll see that every kid has a wireless tablet to use in school and at home.”
“We can all instantly access the Internet.” Karen elaborates on how she uses Internet access. “I really like that I can use our connectivity to help my students develop a wide range of skills including ‘digital citizenship’, and as importantly, to instill in them a ‘can-do attitude’ and an eagerness to contribute somehow to the world community.”
Big aspirations? Yes, but Karen has a big circle of educators to help her achieve this goal.
Her circle includes Harvard University’s program, Teaching for Understanding. “The focus of Teaching for Understanding,” explains Karen, “is that instead of presenting information in a subject area as just a series of facts, we teach concepts, with an emphasis on sustainable concepts.”
“Harvard’s guidance is very cool,” says Karen, “because it teaches teachers like me how to think about teaching. That prompts us to design questions and projects that help kids understand concepts, including how to become ‘agents for change’.”
Karen’s school jumped on board the “agents for change” train. “Our teaching team and all of the fifth grade students pitched in to help when one fifth grade girl who grew up with heart problems started a fundraiser. The event was – a “Hoop-a-thon” – sponsors paid for kids to “hula-hoop” as long as possible. The girl’s goal: raise money for other less fortunate Vietnamese children to get the same good care that she’d had.” Karen remembers the “Hoop-a-thon” vividly, “It was something else!”
Back in the classroom Karen offers another example of how her class has worked with the concept of becoming “agents of change.” Karen has facilitated several Social
Studies projects using what she calls “visual thinking routines.” One involves students in creating posters with photos at the center. The photos are surrounded by lined boxes for writing comments about the photo under thought-provoking headlines: I Think…; I See…; I Wonder. During this attention-getting activity Karen has the kids circulate around the room, adding comments to each others’ posters.
An innovative and engaging teacher, Karen describes another application of “visual thinking” that inspires students to become “agents of change.” As Karen explains it, “I invite my students to create ‘visual metaphors’.” How does this activity work? The kids illustrate phrases they come up with that “speak to a sustainable concept.” For example, one student wrote the phrase, “Give a child a book and he will take a look. Teach a child to read and he will succeed.”
One of Karen’s favorite ‘visual metaphors,’ written and illustrated by a student last year, offers this: “Give a child paper. He scribbles. Teach a child to write. He ignites his life.”
If students get restless in class, Karen uses attention-grabbing “tricks” to “let kids be kids, but keep them energized about learning, focused and on task.”
“When my students need to have a break we can log on to ‘Double Dream Hands’ on YouTube.” How to play? Simple. The kids stand up and follow the actions of ‘Double Dream Hands’. “It’s a “techie” version of the age-old classroom game of ‘Simon Says,’ and the kids love it,” she explains. “This break-out activity is so effective,” says Karen, “that once I’ve introduced it I can simply ask my class if we need a ‘Double Dream Hands’ Moment when they get squirmy.”
Karen’s classroom could be called “Innovation Central.” Read how she assisted a student who could not sit still during school. “I tried a lot of approaches to this situation,” recalls Karen, “including taking his chair away and making him stand for lessons.” “Nothing worked until I got him a large exercise ball to sit on in class.” “It was amazing,” says Karen, “to see him transform himself. He’d bounce some, but he became a different kid. He was able to stay focused and keep up with the class.”
“I’m always looking for what can help kids focus,” Karen adds.
One of her new ideas is to set up a Movement Corner. “I’m thinking about selecting a section of my classroom where kids can go for a
while if they’re fidgeting.” Allowing controlled movement in class picks up on the success Karen has had with an exercise ball for the boy who couldn’t sit still.
“It’s as much about me not becoming distracted when I’m teaching,” asserts Karen, “as it is about wanting to help kids in any way I can to stay focused on learning.” “I had to train myself to keep my own focus on what works for the kids; not what’s best for me. It’s tough.” There speaks a teacher wise beyond her years.
No doubt that Karen keeps the best interests of her students at UNIS in mind…including helping them develop good habits – habits that will serve them well now and when they are adults.
“I tell my kids,” explains Karen, “that they have to grow and grow skills.” “The cultural backgrounds of my students may vary, but our school is uniform in our requirements, and that includes student behavior.” Karen says that bullying has been a problem at UNIS on occasion, as it is worldwide. “We don’t allow it,” she says firmly.
When students enter Karen’s class, they’ll quickly learn that there’s “no lying, whining or crying unless it’s an emergency.” “This fifth grade year is the year you grow up,” Karen announces to all.
A new school year will soon start for Karen and a new class. Her students can look forward to a year of exciting challenges as well as personal and academic growth with a teacher who does double duty – Karen Walsh models and sparks a love of learning!
Hope you’ll stop by on Monday for a new Attentionology for K – 5 Teachers.
Talk with you again soon,
Barbara ♥ The Lovable Poet