Straight Down the Middle – June, 2017

Dear ISG Staff:

This represents the last time I formally write to you as ISG Superintendent. I would like to personally thank you for all of you have given to ISG during my tenure, and to the Richards family. I have learned a tremendous amount from you all.

Scott

I want to recognize Mr. Scott Miller, a first-year teacher at DEMS, who passed away this weekend at his villa. This tragic event has reached beyond DEMS, and beyond even the ISG community. Scott, a gifted teacher, made a positive impact with many students and staff this year, and he will be missed.

 

Long-serving Leavers

Though the overall staff attrition rate is low this year, there are several staff leaving ISG after a long service to their school and to the district. I’m pleased to recognize and thank the following who have served fifteen years or more at ISG:

Laura and Ray Timm: Icons of the Jubail community for over three decades, Ray and Laura are known for their dedication to their students, and for their fitness and longevity (which would sometimes make its way into their lessons).

Sajida Ifikhar: Teacher of Urdu for twenty-six years. Steady, hardworking, and a solid contributor to life at Dammam.

Rima Abushaur: A stalwart teacher at DBGS in the Arabic and French language, also for twenty-six years, who will continue on as a supply teacher.

Linda L’esteve: Teacher in the Dammam preschool for twenty-four years. A big contributor to the youngest minds at the school.

Sue and John Chapman: Two stints at DBGS and then John moved to the district office as Asst. Supt. for Human Resources. Sue is a highly capable primary years teacher. Twenty-four years at ISG.

Nick Hardcastle: Long-time teacher of seventeen years and most recently Head of Seniors at DBGS, Nick is also an outdoor enthusiast, leading many expeditions within KSA and to Nepal.

 

Performance Report

I’m resending this link to the ISG Performance Report, which you received from Tara Waudby two weeks back, for it is a remarkable, first-of-its-kind-for-ISG production. It captures both quantitative and qualitative data from our four years of work together toward 21st century relevance in our educational programs. It includes short narratives. There is a lot of good to tell through this report, and plenty of data to examine more deeply. We hope this will be the first of an annual performance reporting mechanism on how we are doing toward realizing our Mission. (It’s your unofficial summer homework to read this document.)

 

Some Final Reflections

Four years ago, when I arrived (3 days after the start of school!), I knew my charge from the Board of Trustees: accelerate ISG’s journey toward 21st century relevance in the classrooms. Each of the seven schools had common challenges, but also needed its own path. The big question in my mind was whether ISG—its infrastructure, its teachers, its administrators—had the capacity for such a change. With some strategic investment, we took care of the easy things right away: internet connectivity and devices, literacy resources and consultants, more PD monies available from the district office. It was a tsunami of resources, and people took it in stride.

 

Fast forward to the present, with many new faces joining our experienced ISG staff, and I’m pleased with our progress. The Board asked me early on, “Are the teachers capable of all this?” I responded, “Yes, I believe so.” Now I can say that again with greater confidence. All the administration ever hoped for was that every ISG staff member would get on the path toward 21st century excellence.

 

It feels natural that we have kept the triumvirate of district goals—literacy, tech integration, and collaboration—but also added to and refined the work as a new regime takes over. Furthermore, our relationship with data has matured considerably, where we are now poised to intervene when students are not performing up to par. I truly believe, under the stewardship of Eddie Liptrot and his team, that the best days for ISG are yet to come.

 

There is no doubt that ISG has been good to us. We suffer from the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly that all workplaces experience. Politics are low. We are patient with the countercultural elements of our host country. We rightly put our focus on what is best for the students. It’s all about the learning, because these students, who did not choose to come to KSA, deserve our very best efforts. We can be as good as we choose to be. It is up to us!

 

Whether we were able to get to know each other or not, I hope you have found that I’ve lived up to ISG’s core values of respect, responsibility, integrity, acceptance, with the commitment to act. There were successes, and there were mistakes. We rarely get do-overs, but honestly, I did my very best, and I have no regrets.

 

Please stay in touch, even if it’s only on Linked-In.

 

Yours in service…

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Straight Down the Middle – ISG Staff

Straight Down the Middle
December, 2016

Dear ISG Staff:

“To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” (Mother Teresa)

As the sun sets on the penultimate day before the winter holiday, you, like me, have likely have reached a happy state of exhaustion, a brilliant term to describe those who work in the noble profession of schooling. We heed Mother Teresa’s advice, using holidays to replenish our energies, restore our perspectives, reconnect with family and friends, find a new book to read, and generally unwind from the stressors of life. But my thinking is shifting on this matter. Why do we wait for the breaks (nights, weekends, holidays) to take care of ourselves? Should we not carve our time during the school day to replenish our reserves? Would this not best serve children and our colleagues?

Schools are filled with exceptionally good people, who are also notorious for taking care of others first, and themselves last. As a New Years resolution, consider adding one or two strategies to your daily school routine, trying them when you have a few minutes, especially when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted (which is counterintuitive, but it works!). Here are some ideas:

  • A walk in the sunshine
  • Closing your eyes and taking 10 deep breaths, and then just listening to your immediate environment
  • Connecting with one person you haven’t spoken to in a while
  • Eating your lunch with the students
  • Eating your lunch exceptionally slowly, to truly taste the food, and not doing any multitasking while eating
  • Practicing something that is a hobby
  • Writing three hand-written notes of gratitude

Research shows that incorporating self-care strategies like these into one’s daily routine not only produces an antidote to stress (facilitating relaxation), but it can re-wire your brain, making you more resilient to the daily (and inevitable) stressors of life.

And sometimes, just being still and quiet can be the best therapy. Chuang Tzu’s Flight from the Shadow illustrates this point.

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both.
So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still (and quiet), there would be no more footsteps.

This time of year marks a good time to take stock of ISG. I’m happy to say that the organization is in a good place. We have enjoyed a very productive first four months of learning, as evidenced by the knowledge our students are exhibiting through their actions, behaviors, and created artifacts. It has been a half-year of adult collaboration, the best (from my seat) I’ve seen in four years. We are building that professional culture of growth that we know excellent schools possess. We continue to make gains in the infrastructure that supports this learning and collaboration. Bright days are ahead for ISG.

From our family to yours, we wish you a restful break!  May the New Year be filled with love and compassion. See you in January.

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Straight Down the Middle (Staff) – August 2016

Straight Down the Middle
August, 2016
Welcome to the new school year edition!

On behalf of the entire District Office team, and the ISG Board of Trustees, I’m pleased to welcome you back (or to) ISG. Today marks the first day for staff at ISG’s seven schools (and five campuses). Though certainly hectic in our preparations for Monday’s go-time with children, I love the energy that this week brings.

We have been welcoming in several new teachers over the last few nights, trying to make their transition as smooth as possible. (Thank you for your help in this matter.) I’m curious how many watched A Hologram for the King on the plane, and whether that was a good thing for their induction.

The Richards family had a relaxing and typical ex-pat summer, spending time with family and friends, predominantly in New England. I was able to do a week’s professional development at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and to read several books on my list: Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf), How to Set a Fire and Why (Jesse Ball), and about 20% of the Sherlock Holmes Ultimate Collection. I’m almost through with The Orphan Master’s Son (Adam Johnson), a fiction about North Korea. I’m happy to talk about any or all of these books with you if we can find a moment, and I’d love to hear what you read.

ISG is ready for you to join us on Thursday at the annual Convocation (08:30 in the Dhahran Auditorium). After a few words from Tara Waudby and me, we’ll follow the usual script of professional development workshops. See Tara’s email from Monday to get specifics for what’s on offer.

You have got a lot on your plates, so I’ll keep this message short. I’ll give you some updates when I see you on Thursday.

Cheers,
Paul Richards
ISG Superintendent

(Don’t forget to join the ISG Safety and Security Google + Community)

Straight Down the Middle – June, 2016

School’s Out for Summer edition

Ramadan Kareem! Eid Mubarak (soon)!

Though we start a gradual descent toward summer break some time in May, the last week of school always feels like a hasty landing of the plane. C’est la vie for the school teacher! It has been a real pleasure over the past few weeks to attend many of the performances, concerts, graduations, promotion ceremonies, and other events at the ISG campuses. For those I’ve missed, we’ve got ISG’s social media channels.

I want to wish you all a refreshing and stimulating summer holiday, whether you’ll stay in KSA, go home, or take a special trip. For the Richards family, it is time to visit family (Boston & Colorado), take a course, go to camp, fight off mosquitos, and generally relax.

The close of school provides a time for recognition and celebration. It can be difficult when wrapped up in the day-to-day grind of the school year to step back and appreciate the myriad of good work going on each day. Let’s start with something simple: the tens of thousands of staff-student interactions each day. Yes, we pass along knowledge, and help develop skills, but most of all, we mentor, inspire, and set a positive example for our impressionable youth. This partnership allows for growth, and I see it every day in my travels, and it inspires me to be the best I can be.

There is a transactional element to ISG, particularly with the dozens of support staff across the district. Approvals get moved about (along with too much paper, I must say), support is offered, translations are made, advice is given. Thank you to all of those local staff who are lower on the pay scale, but are integral to keeping the whole ISG train moving. Without you, the education would be impossible.

Taking a more macro perspective, we have moved the 21st Century learning needle considerably in terms of technology integration, innovation, new learning spaces, and the still-essential, literacy. We have tried to keep the improvement focus simple and consistent with the binary wings of tech and literacy. We have added a budding coaching system to support teachers in the classroom. We have improved the number of opportunities for athletics and sports within the ISG community. I could go on an on.

From my office, the view forward includes several whales (an ironic term given where we are in the world). We are making good progress on the search for a future Dhahran campus, speaking with several big developers for a state-of-the-art campus. We anticipate reaching an agreement before the winter break.

Attention is being given to support the Jubail community as it builds new middle/high school, as well as Dammam, who opened its new school this year. Yanbu is investing heavily in its current infrastructure. Financial health and Board governance continue to receive ample attention so we can remain on solid footing with these two important drivers.

The search for my replacement continues in earnest, assisted by International School Services. A small committee of the Board is currently vetting candidates to create a short-list for August interviews. Stay tuned for further information when we return to school.

I would like to thank both David Whitaker (and Olga) and Anne Armstrong for providing over a decade of service to the Business Office and Little Learners, respectively. The District Office welcomes in Dirk de Jager (and wife Jeanette) as Director of Finance, and Sylvia Hayles to lead Little Learners. In addition, James Pritlove will be our new Director of Security and Safety. We also welcome in the four-plus dozen sponsored teachers and many more local teachers, TAs, and support staff to ISG. We are a large organization, with many moving parts, but ISG is people-focused and care-based, and we’re eager to welcome, get to know, and learn from our new arrivals.

Believe it or not, we have already planned our annual staff Convocation for Thursday, August 18 at 08:30 in the Dhahran Auditorium. The theme will be collaboration. In that spirit, I encourage you to check out the district’s site for learning—ISG Learns—which Tara Waudby caretakes.

Please see this link to the 2017-18 school calendar. With the location of the two Eids, the school year became a bit squeezed. An August start was simply not feasible.

I’d like to end with a link to ISG’s newly adopted Standards for Customer Service. The District Office strives toward the very highest level of support for the schools and its communities. These standards will help set the tone and expectations for our interactions (such as a “starting with yes” mantra).

Most of you have never been able to visit Yanbu International School, a special community on the Red Sea, north of Jeddah. This “lip dub”, put together by the senior class, is a nice tour of the school (sorry, you’ll need Facebook for this). Enjoy!

Paul

 

 

 

 

Straight Down the Middle – Unplugged 2016 edition

 

27 February 2016
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Dear ISG staff:

For the past few days, several staff have represented ISG at the biannual ASB Unplugged Conference, hosted by the American School of Bombay. I believe this is the most important gathering on the international school world’s calendar; I was pleased with the impact of ISG’s participation in 2014, and I feel the impact will be even greater from this experience.

Why does this conference work? First, it’s the setting. The first day of the conference happens at the school, while it is in session. In fact, the day before the workshops start, a full day is devoted entirely to classroom visits. If one can’t get inspired seeing the joy students exude when engaged in their learning, and how a caring and competent teacher facilitates this, then one should not be in this profession.

Second, there is an esprit de corps that permeates the conference. It is in the ether. ASB Unplugged serves as a network that builds the social capital among all of us that choose to engage in self-improvement for the welfare of the students in our charge. Researcher Michael Fullan argues that by building social capital—which concerns the quality and quantity of interactions and relationships among people—we are able to tap into the expertise of others. A school can achieve an impact bigger than the sum of its individual parts.

Finally, the content of the conference is engaging, both in substance and relevancy, but also in challenging our oft-restricting assumptions toward teaching and learning. The following quotes were shared today over the ISG team’s WhatsApp group:

  • “If students are doing work for the world, they want it to be good. If students are doing work for you, they want it to be good enough.” (McLeod)
  • “All assessment interrupts the learning process.” (Stager)
  • “If a teacher explains the same concept to a child 100 times, it is not the child who is a slow learner.” (source not attributable)
  • “Data is the narcotic that lazy school administrators use in lieu of sitting next to students.” (source not attributable)

To simplify and clarify my own takeaways from Unplugged, I offer the following synthesis. We, meaning all of us dedicated to K-12 education worldwide, are still in the infancy of understanding and coming to grips with technology’s role in student learning (and student learning is what our daily work is all about!). Technology is both a skill to be developed, and also a tool to facilitate our desired outcomes. These skills and tools are inherently interdisciplinary—so it applies not necessarily in every instance, but it can apply everywhere. Technology integration is neither all good nor all bad. We know it can boost learning and growth (by fostering collaboration, or effecting communication, or creating something useful and elegant, for example). We also know the concerns about distractibility, about the erosion of authentic relationships, and about privacy are valid and need more study. The key is to continue our critical examination of what works in the learning process, piloting and prototyping new ideas (and sharing them broadly), giving voice to students by allowing them to influence and own their learning through choice, measuring the value-added to what we are doing, and being mindful of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

I am proud of the good work ISG teachers do everyday in this realm, as I am of the support administrators and other staff provide to the classrooms. I appreciate the open mindset and grit employed when tackling the vexations that present themselves. It may feel a far distance to go before technology clicks in our day-to-day practice, but we are trying, and we are making progress. Success is rarely linear, is it? (Citation: American School of Bombay)

Success

Unplugged has allowed the ISG participants to nurture our inherent curiosity, affirm the moral responsibility to do right by children, and return to Saudi Arabia to tap into and grow the organization’s social capital—all for the benefit of those we serve, our cherished students.

We’ll see you soon.

Dr. Paul

 

Skin Color – Much Ado About Nothing

Those who believe themselves to be White. Full stop. What did I just read?

In the three decades or so that I’ve been conscious about race and skin color, there have been a handful of seminal artists and writers that have shook my world to the core, thus changing my mindset, and even the course of my actions. Sequentially:

Run DMC
N.W.A.
Public Enemy
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Between the World and Me.

It was the latest of these influences, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ new auto biopic, where the believe themselves to be White passage presented itself—he uses the phrase whenever referring to Whites.

Identity formation begins with self-labeling, including how we classify ourselves according to skin color. But our identity is also shaped by how those around us—family, friends, colleagues—view us. Furthermore, society labels us, and skin color is a too-easy place to start. America has a special propensity to race its inhabitants, whether they want it or not. In fact, America is obsessed with skin color.

I know that larger society as well as my inner circle of contacts identify me as White. Coates’ challenge of Whiteness burst my own self-identifying bubble of Whiteness. I have been taking this label for granted, and realizing yet another invisible privilege can be sobering indeed.

I see this in my fair-skinned, red-haired daughter, who is distinctly Asian in appearance due to her one-quarter Filipina heritage. She often refers to herself as White. Our son, who has a darker skin tone and dark brown hair, talks much less about skin color. In fact, he has never called himself White (or Asian, for that matter). I’m wondering if this is noteworthy.

A white-skinned colleague of mine, who has a black father and calls himself “incognegro”, once told me that he only seems to talk about skin color in mixed race settings, meaning that in a group entirely of people of color, skin color, and especially Whiteness, rarely enters the conversation. So not only is America obsessed with skin color and race, it is distinct to White Americans.

Can humans be separated into distinct biological subspecies, based on hues and hair differences, limb and nose shapes? This question is the elephant-in-the-room that has swirled around the race science debate for centuries. While it is no longer politically correct to ask this out loud, the question nevertheless remains.

Our breakthroughs with understanding DNA and human variation shed irrefutable light on this debate. There is no biological justification that separates humans into subspecies. Period. It is impossible to ignore the science, but still too counterintuitive to learned attitudes and stereotyping for most people to accept.

To start unpacking the biology of race, let us start with the fact that for 95% of the time homo sapiens have walked the Earth (approx. 3m years), that roaming has been in Africa. Migration beyond Africa is a very recent chapter in our story. This time in Africa allowed for vast genetic variations to develop among humans. Anyone who has been to north, central, and southern Africa can attest to these differences.

When humans began to migrate out of Africa, they encountered very different environmental conditions: harsh winds, cold temperatures, etc. Evolution took over and we adapted, for survival. Yet the differences that developed—lighter skin, different eye shapes—represent a tiny fraction of the genetic code. Just as these visible differences are on our surface, so too are the genetics that cause these variations. Biologically, our differences are superficial.

Skin Color Map 1.jpg

Let us look specifically at skin color. The figure above shows skin pattern variations based on biogeographical ancestry. The patterns are easy to pick up. So what explains these differences, and how you can connect skin color variation across continents?

The sun. Solis. Sol. Al-Shams. Why might one need darker skin where sunlight is more direct? No, not to protect from skin cancer (this is the number one reason students give to this question, when I’ve asked it); only recently have humans survived past early adulthood. It has to do with that most significant of biological functions: reproduction. Sunlight provides vitamin D and other nutrients. However, ultraviolet rays break down folic acids, key to a developing fetus. Dark skin: problem solved.

When humans migrated away from the equator, toward less direct sunlight, we needed to let more sunlight in. This took care of our need for vitamin D. (Today, those with dark skin tones struggle with vitamin deficiencies when living in cold climates.) Keep in mind that all humans have enough melanin in us to make our skin and hair very, very dark. An enzyme, tyrosinase, regulates melanin, allowing skin to lighten or darken.

So, if our biological differences are superficial, then what explains our terrible history and ongoing tensions around race? It goes far beyond cultural differences. America’s founding fathers had a dilemma to solve shortly after the Revolution. The fledgling country needed to build itself around its economy. It needed cheap and controllable labor, in the millions. It already had that in place from nearly two centuries of slave trade. The dilemma came from the contradiction of the “All men are created equal” clause so central to its Declaration of Independence. Offering a social construct that Blacks were biologically inferior to Whites, and likely a different subspecies altogether, was too convenient to discard. This concept was already strongly embedded in the American psyche, slave-holder or not, and needed little justification.

The short of it is that America’s wealth was built on the exploitation and murder of millions with darker hues and different hair (Coates). (The One Drop Rule made it even easier for those with fair skin and blue eyes to be enslaved.) Think of this history when celebrating our country’s wealth and international standing, and in judging the scary trend of income inequality. On July 4th, read Frederick Douglas’ The Meaning of July 4th to the Negro.

Having already accepted the biology of skin color as intuitive (an adaptation to the environment), Coates has allowed me to now push further against my identification as White. I am simply human, with a small space to fill.

 Citations
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Kirchweger. “The Biology of Skin Color.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Web.
Willis. “The Skin We’re in.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Print.

Straight Down the Middle – Early Winter Edition

Success

Dear ISG Staff:

As we brace ourselves to hold on for the December weeks leading up to winter break, it is worth pausing to reflect on what ISG considered a very special month of November. It began with a triumph for ISG, the two days devoted to our district goals of technology integration and literacy.

The GAFE Summit gave 200+ ISGers and another 100+ from around the Kingdom useful strategies (and mindsets) for technology integration. If you did not attend the event, see these photos, this resource-laden page from lead presenter James Sanders, and James’ keynotes (day 1) (day 2). ISG officially put itself on the international map for technology in schools. Thank you to Alexander van Iperen, Director of Digital Learning, his great team of technicians, and to Chris L’esteve who first envisioned this event.

Another PD event at ISG was just as important, but not as highly publicized: the Literacy Summit, hosted and coordinated by Tara Waudby, Assistant Superintendent for Learning. Again, 200+ ISGers participated. In the past, ISG would have brought in a pricy talking head from the field of education. This time around, however, we relied on the expertise that exists within ISG, to produce tangible outcomes such as learning the basic design of Workshop, using assessment data to influence lesson planning, and classroom tips and tricks to support the literacy initiative. Check out the two-day program here.

Now in my third year at the helm of ISG, I have never been so pleased and proud of the organization as I was during these few days in November.

November (and now December) sees the normal goings-on of an international school district such as ISG: contract renewals and recruitment, budget planning (and the excitement of new items and positions), and more mundane (but important!) initiatives such as safety and security planning. Each of our campuses will continue to receive significant investment in its infrastructure.

I want to leave you with five things to think about:

  1. Literacy (reading, writing, information, computational, etc.) is the single most important competency for the past, the present, and the future needs of our students. This should be at the core of every lesson plan and every effort we make on behalf of students.
  2. Once we admit a student, we must fight tooth and nail to ensure that the student will thrive (achieve and grow). That means multiple interventions (even before eval testing) before ever asking the question: “Does this student belong at our school?”
  3. Now that ISG is connected to the world through technology, work diligently to deemphasize the devices (see this article from ISTE about how technology is largely just an interchangeable tool).
  4. Connect with your peers and other members of the school community. The antidote to feeling overwhelmed is through connection (it’s counterintuitive).
  5. If you feel you are swimming in a sea of negativity or frustration, take refuge in the growth and happiness of our students. Take 15 minutes and visit a classroom that is not your own. Watch the early years students come back from lunch, or at recess. Instant therapy.
  6. Bonus proverb: If you are angry at someone, buy them a gift.

Take care, and have a good break. You deserve it!
Dr. Paul Richards
ISG Superintendent