School


They’re scattering to places around the United States, Canada and England.

Some know exactly what career they want to pursue, while others still haven’t figured it out. For some, their time living in the Cayman Islands is coming to an end. Of the 25 graduates of the Cayman International School class of 2017 – the school’s largest graduating class to date – 24 are going to university in the fall, while the 25th will wait to start college until after a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy.

They will miss their friends, they will miss their family, but they are ready to embrace the next phase of their lives. Just hours before graduation, class valedictorian Camila Pantin was still trying to process in her mind what was about to happen.

“It still hasn’t hit me … that [Cayman] won’t be the place I’ll be living for the next few years,” she said. This autumn, Camila starts at the University of Notre Dame, where she’ll study liberal arts for the first year, with the idea of eventually entering the school’s College of Business.

Like eight of her classmates, Camila will enter university with college credits, thanks to the successful completion of Cayman International School’s IB (International Baccalaureate®) Diploma Programme, an optional, advanced curriculum. The rigorous IB Diploma Programme challenges high school students,“It was challenging and pretty hard, but it was manageable,” said class salutatorian Erik Bjerksholt. “It was stressful at times, but the teachers do a great job supporting us. They want you to do well.”

Originally from the Canary Islands, Erik is heading off to the U.K. – probably Bath – to study chemical engineering at university. He doesn’t see himself coming back to the Cayman Islands to live. “I hope to come back to visit,” he said.

Graduate Theo Nielsen will continue a family military tradition by joining the U.S. Navy. His great-grandfather fought in World War I, his grandfather in World War II and his father was a U.S. Army Ranger in the early 1980s. After spending four years in the Navy, Theo plans on attending university. He said that he thought attending CIS was a wonderful experience.

“The teachers were the best I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve never had such great teachers supporting me.”

Dani Scott is moving to New York City to attend The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a college conservatory for the performing arts. Dani, who is the daughter of EY Regional Managing Partner Dan Scott, said she loves New York City and even though she grew up in a place as small as Grand Cayman, she is looking forward to living there.

In his congratulatory address to the graduates, CIS Director Jeremy Moore – known as Dr. Jeremy to his students – spoke about the tradition of the graduating class choosing a senior quote, which this year was from Louisa May Alcott: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

“This quote reflects confidence and I admire this confidence that you have as you move on to new adventures,” said Jeremy, then challenging the graduates to define their direction.

“You are not afraid of storms and you are learning to sail, but where are you steering your ship? What do you want to do?” he asked. “That may sound like a trite and tired question at first, but I don’t simply mean what profession do you want to enter into; I mean what do you want to spend your life doing? What is your purpose?”

Jeremy told the graduates that he hoped their goals were not as simple as personal wealth and he said a Harvard University survey surmised that the secret to happiness was achieved through four actions.

“Cherish your most important relationships,” he said, citing the first action. “Be a contribution – not make a contribution, but be a contribution. Remember that by helping others and helping our world, you are also helping yourself.

“Take care of yourself, your health and your well-being,” he continued. “And do more of what you’re good at and less of what you’re not so good at. You won’t be truly happy if you choose a career and a life path for the wrong reasons. You must realise your strengths and build on them and do what you enjoy.”

Whatever this very capable group of young men and women do in their future, they have already had a huge impact on the young students at CIS who look up to them as example and models. They will be missed by younger peers and teachers alike, and have set a high standard that will be hard to match.

When I was young and easy as the grass was green, I was much affected by the poetry of Dylan Thomas (alluded to above) and e.e. cummings. One of the latter’s poems, “When God lets my body be,” struck me at the time as a most apt figure of speech. Yes, I had a life to live, and much of it lay ahead of me then. But even then I could foresee a day when I would be glad to quit of all the responsibilities that life and God lay upon me. I knew even then, that given my drive to do and see all that there was to know, that I would never be free until God was willing to let my body be; that I would always be a work in progress; that I would always be on the way to being something that I was not, in order to be all that I could potentially be.

Over the last two years I have been becoming an IB Diploma English teacher. It is one of the most challenging things I have undertaken in my life, and it is only now that I can say with some assurance that I have become what I set out to be some two and a half years ago. It was in February 2015 that I accepted this position at Cayman International School in the Cayman Island. I knew that I would have up my game considerably to meet the professional standards for this move. Taking a Masters was part of that thinking. So was immersing myself in Google Sites, Classroom, and Drive protocols, and refreshing my SmartBoard knowledge. I studied the materials for this position and wore my colleagues out with demands for information. I met or Skyped with everyone I knew to find out all that I could. I started lesson planning and choosing novels, plays, and poetry about four months before I even got here. Over the course of the last two years I have built three websites to house all the curriculum materials I have developed. I update the articles and novel study guides weekly.

English is a difficult subject at the best of times. There are so many things you have to access to do well. You have be a good reader; that goes without saying. But you also need to be a good writer, a good speaker, a good presenter, a good debater, and above all a good thinker. You have to be familiar with literature from several countries, regions and traditions. You have to have a good grasp of historical and social movements, and a least a familiarity with the development of intellectual ideas. You have to not only know literary terms and conventions, but know their use and purposes and be able to use them yourself. For IB English you have to know not only know how to write critical analysis – not imposing interpretations on text but drawing meaning from it – but that analysis must be written in a concise and fluid prose that does not become biased or dogmatic.

To bring all this about as a teacher you must assiduously read and correct virtually everything your students write. Assessment in IB is most tightly proscribed. There is absolutely no room at all for subjective assessment to any degree. On a typical weekend I will mark student work for 10 to 14 hours. Nor does the teaching day afford much preparation time for lessons, which must also be prepared over the weekends. Last year I taught three different grades of English. This year and next I will teach two grades, two sections each, plus an elective each day. In Malaysia I taught one grade three periods out of the six in a day, so this was a twofold increase in my workload.

The workload may be daunting, but the real challenge was getting up to speed on the demands of knowledge for each novel, play, and poet that I taught. That has taken hundreds of hours, and I am nowhere near finished. I still need to know everything I possible can about Wislawa Szymborska, Chinua Achebe, Jean Anouilh, Bernhard Schlink, Cormac McCarthy, Pablo Neruda, and Zora Neale Hurston, and I need to constantly push what I already know about Sophocles, Aristotle, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Yann Martel, William Shakespeare and Robert Frost. I need to find relevant articles about the works we are studying and reduce these articles to what is useful and applicable for an upper high school study. I have to constantly adjust my lesson plans to meet the exigencies of IB and CIS report card deadlines, school trips, assemblies, school-wide events, and parent teacher meetings.

I confess that I am tired. Exhausted would be closer to the truth. But I am not yet done. In fact, last weekend I took a round of training to become an IB Examiner so I can mark student work from other countries as well as my own. I am doing this so I can have a greater understanding of what constitutes a good grade by IB criterial so I can better instruct the students I teach. This too is part of becoming an IB teacher, so I am not there yet, wherever there may be.

However that said – and I recognize that it is a lot to digest – let me come to the heart of the matter. Yesterday I finished the end of the two year cycle that is the IB Diploma program in English Literature. The students that I started with two years ago are now finished their lessons. They are not finished their year, let me hasten to add. In front of them is a three week cycle of exams in every subject. There will be two exams in English, for example, three in Biology, three in Chemistry, three in Math and so on. All of these exams are externally marked by IB Examiners in some other country. We cannot mark our own, and indeed I will not even see the English exam until after the students have written it. I will not know how they did until sometime in August.

But my part is done. I have planned and executed a two year course of study starting virtually from scratch and it is done. May I say – with some degree of justification – that it was done well. Yesterday I told the students that I would let them assess me. I opened a folder in Google drive for this purpose and let them say whatever they wanted. I will not post here the comments they made. That is private between them and me, and I would not violate our confidential relationship by citing their reflections. I will say that I am humbled by their kindness and their courtesy, and rejoice that my efforts to bring about their greater good have not gone unnoticed.

So where am I now? Well, I have become an IB English teacher. That is what I set out to do, and that is what I now am. In time I will become a better one, I am sure. I am also now an IB Examiner, so for now, and for this brief window, I am not becoming, I am. When God lets my body be, I will finally be who I am forever. I am not in a hurry to get there, but gosh I must say that I am looking forward to the rest.

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This will be my last English class in Asia, and I could not have asked for a nicer group of students to finish out my time at Taylor’s. They were bright, motivated, and kind. They were willing to take chances and push their own boundaries. They were also extremely faithful in their attendance, which is a huge factor when your class comes at the end of what is always a long day in the CPU program.

We did not get off the best start as I was in the States for the first three weeks of the term and the unit had to be covered by a colleague. Fortunately for me, Daniel Layng knows a lot about Critical Approaches to Literature and covered the unit well. I was around long enough at the beginning of the term to get the ISU novels assigned, and get the kids started on a reading schedule, and that was easy enough to pick up when I got back. The ISU essay is always a tricky bit of business, and I decided this time around to divide it up into two parts, rather than tackle the whole monster by itself at the end of the term. This allowed me to block out the essay into digestible parts for kids for whom the whole idea of a research essay in literature is an alien concept.

I have always maintained that the only way to properly edit your own work is to write it and put it away for at least a week. In our case, we researched and wrote the essay and even marked the first half of it, and then we put it away for two months. When we came back later to do the comparative past with a film that had the same thematic interest, the kids had a better perspective on the essay they had written, and a better idea of what movie fit for comparative purposes. I had kids doing Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, Landis’ Trading Places, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, and even one able student doing Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Ii made for some good essays, and even better seminar presentations. In the past, I have found kids had a hard time filling the twenty minutes they had for their ISU presentations. This time around, I was forced to cut some kids off after thirty minutes! It was awesome!

We also had a new novel this year. As much as I love Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, I was frankly getting a little seasick! In my absence, the department had moved on to Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a fitting follow up novel to The Kite Runner that is also set in Hosseini’s native Afghanistan and deals with the issue of the treatment of women in that part of the world. It is an important book for Asian students – especially females – to be studying in a culture that lags at least a generation behind the West in its understanding of the place of women in society.

We also studied Shakespeare’s Othello, again a pleasant change from the melancholy Dane, Hamlet, who quite frankly gets on my wick, despite the soaring soliloquies of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Othello is far more visceral and personal; a devastating examination of the demonic in all of us. Not nearly as accessible as either Hamlet or Macbeth (the latter being the Bard’s best, imho), I was forced to use film to explore the play’s nuances, and found Olivier’s 1965 version, blackface and all, to be a most faithful and useful version; with one glaring exception.

The 1995 version with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh does a much better job of examining the oppressive victimization of women that Shakespeare so eloquently explores in a pivotal scene with Desdemona and her bff Emily. We then had the fun of staging that scene, and the final one where Emily just goes ballistic all over male entrenched privilege and the murderous implications of their ‘ownership’ of women (“Oh, you idiot! You stupid fool! As dumb as dirt!”). Feisty and fascinating to see the young women of my class come to grips with their own issues of oppression in a patriarchal hemisphere through the persona of their characters.

It was exhausting to try and cover this class to the standards I set for myself in thoroughness and comprehension while trying to wrap my responsibilities up as Project Coordinator for CSR. It was also rewarding and enjoyable and deeply satisfying, and pleasant to be back in class with a really nice group of kids. I am looking forward to getting back into a full teaching role in the Caribbean. It is, when all is said and done, the heart of who I am.

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I love drama. Some would say that is because I am a ham and crave attention. Well, all teachers have to have some sense of timing and teachable moment or they cannot be effective. But limelight? Actually I am painfully shy at heart and spent maybe the first 20 years as a teacher with painful sore throats that would often lead to strep for the first two months of every school year in absolute dread of having to stand in front of people and let them see how little I know. I have learned how to manage that stress, but limelight I leave to others. They are plenty of prima dons and donnas in this profession. Some of them are actually quite talented. Some of them simply have an inflated sense of self. Unfortunately, Drama Festival can bring out the worst in my colleagues as some of them cannot resist the spell of the spotlight. That is not what I love.

20150508_142904What I love about drama is how it brings a class together. Drama is more effective at doing this than almost anything else you can name. You can teach your class about working cooperatively together until you are blue in the face. You can design modules, and construct space, invent clever strategies, and provide endless examples. You can have literature circles and reading groups, you can plan seminars and workshops, but if your students have come from a restrictive and repressive education system – as Asians have by and large – then it will take months of patience and effort to bring them to the place where they begin to work together as a team. And even at that it may still not happen. Or you can let your class do drama and bring all that and much more about in a few short weeks. And have fun doing it!

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Drama has the power to take us out of ourselves and teach us in a very practical and unforgiving way the absolute necessity of working together as a group. You don’t show up on time? Everyone on your team has to wait until you get there. You forget your lines? Everyone in that scene suffers from your failure. You have to work together on where you stand in relation to everyone else on the stage. You have to work together to move the props about and organize your costumes around a theme or time period. You have to work together on script and accent, on gesture and response. Everything everyone else does affects you, and everything you do affects everyone else.

20150508_143957As for the performance itself? That is just the icing on the cake. It is fun to see and especially fun to witness those who are shy like me come out of their shells and lose themselves in their characters. There were many notable performances that day in other classes. There were individuals who clearly have greasepaint in their veins, whose performances who outstanding. There were those who commanded the audience’s attention and compelled their admiration and respect. I commend them for their performances and the characters they created. But I was trying to do something else. I was trying to create a caring community through drama. And that is something both much harder to do, and more enduring.

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I wanted my students to enjoy what others in their class were doing as they brought their characters to life. I wanted them to come up with their own suggestions on character and staging and share them with others. I wanted them to work together on their plan and then plan for little details. I wanted them to feel the rush of anxiety and anticipation and the absolute thrill of experiencing all of what you have planned take place in front of a live audience who laughs and applauds with approval at what you have created for their enjoyment. I love seeing the transformation in my students as they move from a sense of individuality to a sense of the unity of the group and the importance of depending on others for your own individual success. If you are thoughtful, if you are careful to allow the students to take responsibility for what they are doing, then what you build through drama is a community, instead of a class.

That is what I love about drama.

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I am 65. I make no bones about it and no apologies for my age. I have earned every one of those years through the toil and dedication of my commitment to educational excellence. It is just that we all live in such a superficial culture anymore where the emphasis is all on what happened 15 minutes ago. Does anyone care that Ebola is still killing people in West Africa? See my point?

My students are always stunned when I say that I have absolutely no desire to be young again. Been there; done that. It was every bit as painful and embarrassing as what you are going through if you are young and you could not pay me enough to go through that again. I like the age that I am. I like what I have learned and done and who I have become. I know what the advertisements say and they all lie. Old is good; old is very satisfying. But it does limit your career options. Many countries will not hire above 65. Some set the limit at 60 and some post it as low as 55. It is their country; they get to do what they like. I may not agree with it, but I have to find a job in an increasingly smaller world.

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With that in mind Pam and I went to the ISS Job Fair in San Francisco. We had registered for this job fair back in October, and had built a good part of this present trip around that weekend. As I noted in an earlier post, for us the Lord is always in the details of these things, and it is marvelous how He works out those details for our good. Pam had us booked in at the Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf, and the location turned out to be ideal, as the job fair was only a short trolley ride away and the area was jammed with restaurants and night life. We went down to the venue and registered as soon as we arrived and steeled ourselves for what I was sure was going to be a chaotic and demoralizing zoo in trying to land a job in a limited market.

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Through months of careful planning and screening we had selected several target schools and countries as the focus of our search. One by one the Lord eliminated them until only two remained, both in our target destination of the Caribbean. Amazingly, neither school was at all concerned about my age; amazingly, both of them competed for my services. After a whirlwind two days, I accepted what seemed to be the best offer of the two, a school that offered me a chance to teach English in their International Baccalaureate program at the high school level. I start in August.

To say that I am surprised by this development is understatement. One does not expect to be landing a plum job in an area of interest and expertise at my age as easily as this. I know colleagues half my age who are struggling to find a position nearly as advantageous. Not only did I have two schools competing for my services, but I was treated by the hiring agency, ISS, with the utmost courtesy and consideration. If you are a teacher and you are looking to teach internationally, may I highly recommended this organization. They are true professionals

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The long and short of it is that there is going to be another chapter in our lives before retirement. How long this chapter lasts is not ours to know at the moment. We went to Malaysia on the strength of a one year contract. By the time we leave it will be eight years. I will sign on for this position for two years. Perhaps that is all we will get. If so, we will be grateful. Perhaps we will get more. If so, we will be truly old before we retire! All we know for now is that I have a job and we are moving to the Caribbean this summer. You are welcome to come and visit us. If you don’t mind staying with old people.

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Carol Dweck, America’s leading educational psychologist, conducted a series of ground-breaking studies (summarized here) into cognition that sought to assess the value of praise on student learning. Her intention was to determine if specific teacher responses impeded or encouraged learning behavior. Praise comments were divided into two categories: words and phrases targeting existing intelligence, and those targeting effort and ingenuity.

Readers can easily imagine for themselves what those comments might be. “Aren’t you a clever lad” is one that I often heard myself as I was growing up. On the other side of the coin would be phrases like, “You really worked hard on that assignment,” or “I like what you did in that part of your answer.” Students who solved the first problem were given the first set of praise comments, students who failed to solve the first problem were given the second set. The results were more than interesting; they have spawned an entirely new direction in pedagogy.

Students who were told that they were bright, clever, intelligent, gifted, and so on obviously enjoyed the attention. But a curious thing happened when Dweck gave them a choice on a subsequent assignment. Almost invariably they chose the easier task that would ensure them further praise of this nature; comments focusing on their existing intelligence. Students who were praised for their effort and ingenuity in tackling the previous problem were far more likely to choose the more challenging problem. This pattern repeated itself for the next few challenges.

However, when Dweck removed the option of choice in a final and most difficult problem, the students who had struggled through the earlier difficult problems were much more persistent and successful at solving this final problem than the supposedly “clever” students who often simply gave up in frustration. Even more remarkably, when Dweck gave all students the opportunity to mark their own work, the “clever” students were far more likely to lie about how successful they had been.

This landmark study has since been confirmed by a mountain of research and supporting theory, and “Growth Mindset” pedagogy has become something of growth industry of late. The tenets of this theory are few and foundational, and counter basically all that we have thought about learning for generations. The theory contends that there is no fixed intelligence. The brain is almost infinitely malleable and capable of learning and growth, even in advanced old age (a comforting thought to us older learners!). It seems that the much maligned adage of “fake it until you make it” actually makes good pedagogical sense. Apparently we all have the capacity to grow into our jobs simply by consistently applying existing knowledge and being willing to make the effort to solve the problems before us with persistence and ingenuity.

The downside, if there is one, is to be cautious of the messages we give to others. Praise for what they already know and can do well, is counter-productive and leads to both stasis and deception. Praise for what they are attempting that they haven’t been able to do before, encourages growth and persistence. In others words, we want to avoid our children saying “I can’t do that,” and encourage them to think instead, “I can’t do that, YET!”

One of the many things that Taylor’s College does well is honour their staff. I have been on staff for six and a half years now, not the longest I have been at any one school, but longer than my stretches at Scott Street, where I started, or Elgin Court, where I went next. I have watched many staff come and go during that time, as teaching overseas is a pretty transient position. In fact I am now the longest serving expat at the school, as my good friend Easton Hanna who arrived the same year as I did went home in July.

Malaysian teachers tend to stay longer, and in fact one of them, Ungku Nazli, received her 15 year recognition at this ceremony, and two other staff Joanne Ho, and Rowena Valberg were both recognized for twenty five years. There are staff in other programs who have been at Taylor’s even longer, as the company seeks to foster commitment and contentment. Other staff arrive in our program all the time; some stay for years, others for only a year. It is always good to have new interests and new commitments. But it is also good to have those who are prepared to invest their lives in this institution.

Education is a business in much of Asia, and that is just a reality. Some are offended by this; some like myself see the potential for a lot of good. I am currently engaged in developing this company’s corporate social responsibility, and it has been both rewarding and encouraging to see so many willing to commit to the larger good of the larger community even though their present workload is heavy and their days are long. Celebrating that commitment through happy get togethers like this is one way of encouraging that commitment.

See the slide show of this event at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2s70w2IKfA&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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