Education, Culture, and Climate: My Trip to China

Our team

Our team

In November 2015, I had the unique opportunity (along with 10 educators from New Jersey) to visit China. The purpose of the visit was to study the educational system, explore opportunities to start a language program, and to take in the historic sites.


I learned so much in such a short amount of time. There were so many awesome experiences that it was hard to boil it down to a blog post. I kicked the idea of writing something more extensive, and maybe I will do that if I return and spend more time. I framed this blog post around the most frequent questions I received upon returning.

What was the plane ride like? 

I spent a total of 32 hours on a plane during the trip to China!

I spent a total of 32 hours on a plane during the trip to China!

We flew from Newark, NJ directly to Beijing. This had its positives and negatives. Fortunately, we didn’t have any layovers, but on the other hand, we were on the plane for 14 straight hours! This was the longest time I was ever on plane and it was a test of patience. I don’t think I did very well on the test, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping.


14 hours is a very long time to be in a confined area 30,000 miles above the ground. As I scanned the plane, most people didn’t seem to have the same trouble. Most people were sleeping. I was able to do a little bit of reading and watched a movie. We flew over the North Pole, and we saw ice for miles and miles!


Flying within China was better than expected. Our trip from Beijing to Changchun took a little over two hours and since I had already experienced a long flight it was quite pleasant. I was a seasoned pro at that point!


When we were flying from Changchun back to Beijing, I had an interesting experience. Somehow I made it through customs quicker than everyone else but at the time I didn’t know it. As I entered, I scanned the seats for a familiar face from the trip. To my dismay, I didn’t see anyone. I double checked my ticket and even asked the stewardess if I was on the correct plane. She said I was and asked if everything was OK. I told her I must have been separated from group. After what seemed like an eternity, members from our group began boarding the plane. That was a big relief.


On the way back to the US, I was much more relaxed. The plane was packed so there weren’t many opportunities to move around the plane. I was definitely tired from the trip but I couldn’t sleep. I was also trying to front load the jet lag that was inevitable so I didn’t really want to sleep. I ended up binge watching a bunch of episodes of House of Cards which helped pass the time.


What were the schools like? 

Learning about the morning line ups from Cindy

Learning about the morning line ups from Cindy our guide

Throughout the course of the trip we visited 7 schools ranging from Elementary to College. Due to the size of the country, and how crowded the cities are, class sizes ranged from 30 to 50 and school’s had thousands of students enrolled. Although this may seem large (and it certainly is if you look through a personalized education lens) but for the current delivery of content it makes a lot of sense. Most teachers are positioned at the front of the class, and they are usually on some type of platform. Unlike the United States, teachers in China are revered and respected. Teachers spend limited time disciplining students or implementing classroom management. The stakes are so high for the students, it is extremely important for them to do the best they can on the exams.


Since the Chinese tend to value to the group as opposed to the individual, the whole class delivery is in line with their core values. One of the professors told us that the Chinese “dream” is to build a better, stronger China. Therefore, the kids in the classes are committed to learning the material with little emphasis on individualism. In fact, in one classroom we visited the teacher didn’t call the students by their names, but rather by “boy” or “girl.”


As much as things are different, they are the same

As much as things are different, they are the same

The schools in China, in many ways, are very similar to the schools in the US. There is a difference from the top level schools and those that are not. Results of the examination determine the middle school, high school and college that a student will attend. Obviously, not everyone can attend the elite schools and they have to settle for other options. This doesn’t happen in America either.


One option that wealthy Chinese parents explore is the “international” school. These schools are affiliated with universities in the US, Canada, England or other European countries.  The curriculum allows for more creativity and personalized learning with a goal to have the kids attend college abroad. It is unclear to me if these schools have earned the respect that is so coveted in the Chinese culture. My sense is that they are not.


International schools place a significant emphasis on the arts. We watched several intense dance classes that were similar to an expensive dance studio in the states. The instructors were intense and either kept time with sticks, drums or even a cane. The dancers were mostly girls and they were extremely focused throughout the classes. There was also a lot of emphasis placed on athletics at the international schools. Kids played basketball and soccer whenever they had the opportunity.


Most schools we visited had a residential component. Kids in elementary through high school tend to stay on campus for school. As the students progress in their grade level and the academic demands increase, they spend any free time they have studying. School is literally a full-time job in China.


What is Special Education like in China? 

Special education students in Changchun

Special education students in Changchun

When we visited Changchun University Special Education Division, I thought it was a college designed to prepare teachers to teach students with special needs. It was actually special education students in a class learning about massage, Braille and art.


The first class we went in was a bit of a culture shock. There were about 50 special education students learning about acupressure points. There were kids (late teens early 20s) that had all types of learning disabilities. Yet, they were experiencing a teaching style that was very similar to the one that we saw earlier. There was no differentiation. 


Next we went to a room where blind kids were learning about massage. We got a brief introduction and then they were looking for volunteers. I immediately raised my hand and ended up getting about a 30 minute massage. Eventually, everyone in our group got a message. It was viewed as good practice for the students, and after the long plane ride, we needed it.


After we finished our massages, we went to the Art Department. There were about 15 kids painting these amazing renditions of famous works of art. They were all hearing impaired. We talked a little bit to the art director and he told us that they put the finished products in galleries, send them to business and other places who want art to display. Then we toured the actually gallery and saw what had been established for the past 20 years as they established the college. They were so proud of what they have accomplished and it is truly amazing. It really hit me that they are educating the special education students on a deeper level than we are.


I am not sure how students with learning disabilities are treated within the K-12 system. Since the class sizes are big and there is such an emphasis on the exams, my sense is that very little it done to make “accommodations.” In some of the larger classrooms, there were teacher aides or student teachers that gravitated to students in the back of the class. This is certainly a topic that needs more research.

Describe the Chinese Universities you visited

Listening to a lecture on the Chinese educational system

Listening to a lecture on the Chinese educational system

We visited several colleges and universities. Our college tour started at Jilin University’s library. It was mammoth and packed bright and early on a Saturday morning. Of course we discussed how American university libraries were probably vacant on the weekend mornings because the kids were out partying the night before. I asked our tour guide if the college kids ever have fun and partied like their American counterparts. She said that they did but it was on such a different level. The stakes are so high and so much is riding on their placement in the university that they would be better off studying. The library was at least 5 floors and everywhere we went there were kids studying,  reading or on the computer.

 As we were walking around the library, someone pointed out that the students were using laptops that had the English keyboard. We all talked among ourselves about how that could possibly be and why they didn’t have a keyboard with Chinese characters? That is because there are so many Chinese characters. If they built a keyboard with all of the characters it would be extremely large. So they use a transcription method called “ping-ing.” I am still uncertain how it works but after two different people explained it looks like when we are trying to spell a word and the computer attempts to finish it. Then they select the Chinese word or words to insert into the text.


We had the opportunity to hear a professor lecture on the Chinese educational system. It was less about education and more about the cultural and economic underpinnings of the country. He gave us a brief history lesson, and talked about the Cultural Revolution and how much the country has progressed since the 1970s. During the lecture, I asked about the impact of poverty on education, and he seemed to understand where I was coming from (rich areas do better than poor). He felt our economic problems were easy to solve. The Chinese rich and poor are vastly different and the people who live out west are unbelievably poor and extremely disconnected from the entire system of expansion in the cities.


What is a teacher’s day like in China? 

The teacher is on the stage in China

The teacher is on the stage in China

While in Changchun, we got the opportunity to talk with an English teacher who went over her day. She gets to school around 7:00 AM and stays until about 5:00 PM. She teaches two courses that are 40 minutes each and the rest of the time is for preparation and grading papers. It was similar to a college professor’s schedule in the US. She said that they did have some issues with discipline and there were times when they had to write up kids, or have parent conferences.


We saw very few principals on the trip. There were some vice principals or deans but rarely a principal. I asked about that and they said that it was because they were busy and also some of them do not know English. I asked about administrative preparation and our guide said it was a little hard to explain. In order to be a principal, you would have to go through the bureau, and there is an exam and a vote.


 What was the most fun part of the trip? 

USA vs. China in Basketball

USA vs. China in Basketball

There were so much about the trip that was fun! First, the other educators I went with all made each other laugh. We developed a camaraderie that made the trip enjoyable. During our visits to the schools I tried to have as much fun as I normally would have at my own school. I participated as much as possible in the activities. 


In fact we went to an international school that had an arena where the kids had access to a basketball court, and track that was bigger than most colleges. Glenn, Steve and I asked if we could play basketball against the kids and they obliged. Considering we were playing in slacks, dress shirts and dress shoes, I think we held our own. I will say that the kids were skilled and it was obvious that they play a lot of basketball. I think someone had mentioned that a graduate of the school actually made the Chinese national team. After the game we took pictures with the kids and thanked them for their time. It was really fun and a good workout!


What will you remember the most?

That is me in the background of Glenn's picture.... exhausted!

That is me in the background of Glenn’s picture…. exhausted!

The one thing we did that far surpassed everything else was the visit to the Great Wall. I am not sure if it was the shear magnitude of the wall or the physical requirements necessary to ascend as high as we could, but it was a thrilling experience. The Great Wall has such history and significance in Chinese culture. I only wished that we would have spent more time on it. As we climbed the Wall, we met people from around the world. We met people from Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand, US, and Germany.

When we finally reached the furthest part of the Wall we could in the time allowed, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It was not an easy hike, and we probably traversed several thousand steps along the way. Going back down the wall wasn’t an easy feat either.


How was the food?


This is a goose head. No one ate it!

I thought the food was delicious. I am not a very adventurous eater (and I never eat seafood) and I was able to enjoy so much food. I felt that the food was always fresh and healthy. I struggled with the chopsticks but kept using them despite my struggles. Most of the food was very similar to the Chinese food I have experienced in the United States.

I watched our Chinese tour guides and interpreters during our meals. They didn’t really drink a lot of liquids during meals and if they did it was usually just hot water. They kept eating throughout the entire meal whereas we would usually eat too much and then slow down. There was not much dairy in their diet. I am a coffee drinker, and I really missed my daily cups of coffee. Whenever I was able to get my hands on a Starbucks, I took advantage of it no matter the cost.



What is going on with the Smog?

We were there 10 days and I only saw the sun twice. The first day we were in Changchun it was sunny, and the next time I saw it was on the flight to Beijing. The smog was everywhere, and it is a problem. While in Changchun I felt like I was camping in a city. I was told that the smell was a combination of the industrial manufacturing and the burning of corn stalks.


The smell here makes me I feel like I’m camping in a city.


In Beijing, it was not the odor, but more of a blanket of constant smog laying over the city. Our guides admitted that the smog is a big problem in China. They indicated that the people who wear the masks are not protecting themselves from the smog as much as they are making a statement. It is clear to me that until this gets addressed, China will struggle to get visitors.


Since you are always on Social Media, how did you survive with everything being blocked? 

I am a firm believer in the power of Social Media. It has transformed me as a principal. With that said, I was only in China for 10 days. I didn’t get an international plan on my phone and I didn’t use a VPN to access blocked sites. I wanted to disconnect from Social Media to engage in the experience. China does a have an interesting app that is not blocked called WeChat. It appeared that everyone in China is on it. You are able to text, call, video conference, upload pictures etc.


In talking with our tour guides and translators, the general consensus is that sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google will eventually be opened. Many of them had spent time in the US so they have accessed these Social Media sites and have seen the benefits. The Chinese government will ultimately decide when and if these sites are able to be unblocked.


What was your biggest takeaway? 

As much as things are different, they are the same

That hat will keep me warm!

That hat will keep me warm!

I’ve always believed that it important to travel and to see other cultures. I learned a valuable lesson while I was there. Despite what I might think of their educational system, culture or even environmental climate, it is really none of my concern. I think too often we travel and judge. I really tried to take my preconceived notions and cultural biases and put them on the back burner.


I was impressed with the Chinese knowledge of our culture and language. I think we would benefit from returning this learning and integrating a more global perspective in our educational system. As someone who professes to have 24/7 access to a global online system, there is so much I do not know about the world.


Want more information? 

Here is a link to a podcast I did about my experience

Here is a video I put together for my students and teachers 

Keep an Open Drive



I know the title of this blog post ironic. What type of “drive” am I talking about? Actually, this post is more about my fixed mindset. I tell people all the time to keep an open mind, and I get frustrated when I think they are being close minded or “fixed” in their decision making. I’ll admit it… when it came to Microsoft/Bing/One Drive I had made up my mind before I ever even tried it.


Over the last few years I have been hearing (and seeing) all of the really cutting edge innovations from schools using various platforms. Mac districts, Google Districts, it seemed like they were having all the connections. I was using Google in my professional world, and even used Google Docs to write a book with two colleagues that are across the country! Yet, my district decided to go with Microsoft and One Drive. I wasn’t really happy.  So what do you do in this type of situation? For me, I had to do some inner reflection. Here are some of my reflections:

  • Am I being open or fixed mindset about this?
  • Am I modeling what I want my teachers and students to do when presented with a new program or idea?
  • Is there something for me to learn that I am not seeing?
Teachers in PLCs using One Drive to analyze data and record minutes

Teachers in PLCs using One Drive to analyze data and record minutes

In September, I decided that I would give the One Drive a try. I can’t do anything half way and I jumped in with two feet and started to learn everything I could about One Drive. At one of our early staff meetings, I admitted to everyone that I was changing my approach. I would be enhancing our PLC’s and meetings with the One Drive. I admitted that I was going to learn along with everyone. I made a prediction that we could transform our classrooms using this technology (if we were willing to keep an open mind)!


It didn’t stop there. I explored the features more and made a few Excel Forms to collect information from staff. My first Form was for our Genius Hour. I set it up in a way that would help every manage their project for the year. I made another Form to collect ideas from staff about our before/after school clubs. Now, all of our staff meeting information is on One Drive, and is accessible to the entire staff. We can keep all the notes, minutes and resources in “one” space. This adds to the transparency, collaboration and communication that is so vital to our school.


one drive 2

Keep an Open Drive

In a few short weeks, we have begun to see the power of the One Drive. Teachers are now exploring how they can collaborate with each other using the One Drive. They are seeking ways to integrate it into the classroom to enhance the student experience. In addition, I learned a few things about students and their willingness to learn something despite the platform. Kids in our school are doing similar things that their peers are doing with the other platforms. They are sharing documents, editing peer work, creating presentations, and working collaboratively.


The best part of all this is that now I know two platforms. I think there are positive aspects to each, and I really think (no matter the platform) that students and teachers benefit from these tools. I look forward to sharing more about my journey this year with the One Drive.


What do you think?

It’s all about the culture


What can you make?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Northfield Middle School. That’s the beauty of having a PLN. I reached out to Kevin Jarrett and Glenn Robbins because I had to see their new “maker room” and the EdCamp style afternoons for the kids. It was everything I thought it would be…. and more!


As I walked around the school, I was impressed with how the hallways had transformed into “Idea Streets.” Kids, middle school kids, were treated like college kids. If they wanted breakfast, they just had to go to the kiosk near the front office. If they wanted to sit down and collaborate, there were chairs for them to do so. If they wanted to write on the walls, or the windows, they could. There were no “bulletin boards” because they had been replaced by white boards.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast ~ Drucker


3D printer

3D printer

Kevin’s room is crucial to development of student exploration. It was obvious to me that Kevin is a perfectionist and it showed in the room. I followed the progress of the room over the summer, but I never imagined it would be so… inspiring. Everything had a purpose. Everything from the design of the room, the walls, chairs, tables, the lighting, material storage, and especially the course itself. As I watched kids come and go for their “class” I was impacted by the discussion, the cadence, the creativity, and even the coolness.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast ~ Drucker


Design flaws

Design flaws

As we were touring around, Glenn introduced me to a few kids. I was able to see what they were working on, and more importantly, why. One of the students was working on a design that he was hoping to get picked for the 3D printer. He shared with me how the site he was using helped him apply what he was learning from math, science and language arts. As I scanned the room, all of the kids were on their Chromebooks doing the same thing… pushing their learning, listening to music, creating, and designing.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast ~ Drucker


IMG_4375Glenn asked a girl to come out in the hall to discuss the afternoon EdCamp. She was the one who was working on the art in the for the Respect Campaign. As we talked, she said something that really struck a chord, “I  love how this school allows us to have a voice. We can choose what we want to learn in the afternoon, and the teachers listen to us. I’ve never felt like this in school.” Honestly, neither had I growing up!


Culture eats strategy for breakfast ~ Drucker


The EdCamp afternoon board

The EdCamp afternoon board

Very often we hear about cool things and immediately want to get them into our districts/schools/classrooms. What I saw in Northfield was the result of hard working, innovative thinking people who were ready to work collaboratively over the past few years to get to make a difference. This didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by chance. Everything happened (and will continue to happen) because the stakeholders (parents, teachers, BOE, students, administration and community) worked collaboratively to create a culture that encourages doing what is best for kids!


People are talking about this school… Check out these blog posts about Northfield  Middle School:

Welcome to Idea Street 

An EdCamp Period

Kevin Jarrett’s Blog

Jay Eitner’s Blog


What role does music play in your school?

When I first arrived at the elementary school I was very impressed by the 8 kids who were in the band. It was clearly a dedication that went above and beyond what was offered at the school. Fast forward 4 and 1/2 years and I am amazed at the 48 students in the band (the enrollment of the school has been steady in the 320 range). 48 students is a lot when you are talking about practice, instrumental instruction, and playing as a unit.


Our Band teacher has worked tirelessly to establish one of the most advanced elementary programs in the school district. One of the tools that she uses when instructing the kids in small groups is Smart Music.


By using Smart Music, the students can track their progress with their instrument. It records, plays, and guides the students in their quest to master their instrument. When this was presented at our most recent “tech Friday” it trumped anything the that was presented that day. It has everything that classroom teachers seek: data, continuous improvement, and timely feedback for students. What more could you ask for?

Develop relationships with the new ones

I was in a meeting the other day and someone made a very important insight…. our problems are coming from the new ones (in schools that means our transfer ins). Ah, yes, I replied, “It is because we have not developed relationships with those kids.”


What are you doing to develop relationships with those who are new to your school? District? Or organization?


How you orient or welcome newcomers says a lot about where you place your priorities…

Swimming up the river?

This summer, I was in an Equity and Diversity workshop with Paul Gorski and he presented two options for us to consider.

1. We could save the Starfishes…. Meaning, once we saw a problem, we could work to solve it immediately.

The Starfish story is a very popular story. Basically, A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks. “Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.” “But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.” The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.” (source:




2. We could swim up the river… Meaning, we could see the problems as they currently exist, and swim up the river to see what is the actual problem.

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they leisurely shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown! Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river. “Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!” “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”  (source: 


What are you going to do? Are you willing to swim up the river or just wait on the shore? Choice is yours….


We need time to be Geniuses

Earlier this week we started Genius Hour 2.0 with the staff. Want more information on how we got here? Check out Genius Hour 1.0. I started off the meeting with a quote I heard on a podcast on the way in to work….


I’d rather have questions without answers than answers without questions – Max Tegmart, MIT Cosmologist




Our Genius Hour 2.0 is a drop in the bucket that is as big as an ocean. Reflect on this – How often do we provide staff with time to ask big questions, or even focus beyond the “here and now” to the future? The answer is not much. Not much at all.


Teachers are generally putting out the proverbial fires on any given day. Ask them to think about next year, 5 years from now and you might get a look. In their defense, that look is well deserved. They simply are not provided adequate time to work on the big picture because they are mandated to attend trainings, lesson plan, teach, grade, discipline, talk, listen, conference, work collaboratively on the most recent data, etc… and repeat. Every day for the school year.


To me, Genius Hour is my way of giving them back 20% of the “staff meeting” time to clear their head. Maybe, just maybe, this time requires them to think beyond today, next week or next month. I need them to think about anything that can improve the school.


So as the staff embarks on Genius Hour 2.0 I am hoping that they are able to travel up to the balcony and think about their passion, our school, and where it is going. This will be time well spent, and an opportunity for teachers do something different. To solve a problem that may not exist. To ask questions that can’t be answered.

Clapping in your parents

Cutting the ribbon for the Adopt A School Program

Cutting the ribbon for the Adopt A School Program

At this year’s Back to School Night we wanted to do something different, something unique. So we set out to see what positive message we could send to the parents as they arrived at one of the most important events in the school year.


Fortunately, our teachers are always seeking opportunities to welcome the parents into the school community. So we partnered with a National Fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, to take this opportunity to the next level. In preliminary meetings with the fraternity, we were able to sketch out a basic format to the partnership or “Adopt A School.” Here is the brief overview of the plan:

  • Mentoring
  • Reading to students
  • Spelling Bee
  • STEM activities
  • Book study

We are also going to be capturing this amazing story in an upcoming documentary titled,  “A Year in Transition.”


All this has been (and will be) fostered by building relationships. The champion behind this entire project is one of our parents, Bruce Cooper. Last year he assisted with activities in the classroom, organized a Spelling Bee and helped students find their voice through a public speaking program “Bacon Speaks.”


At the Clap In we had about 80 people come out to welcome the parents. We had teachers, Board of Education members, local Politicians, volunteers, and members from the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. According to some of the parents I spoke with, they were so inspired by the support shown during the Clap In. I received many positive emails, messages, and phone calls about how the parents felt about the Clap In. It was a great start to a unique partnership!

Here are a few video clips and pictures from the Clap In: