Oh, the Places You Will Go…Thanks to Fulbright!

One of the extras of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program is the opportunity for travel outside of your host country. With an allotment of ten personal travel days, Fulbrighters can explore other countries beyond that in which they are doing their work. In addition, they can visit other countries for program purposes that do not count as part of the ten. Missing my family early on, I took four days in February to go home and visit while UK schools were on half-term break. The other days, as well as some used for my program, I have spent exploring a few places with my family I have always wanted to go. Upon returning yesterday from one of these, I figured I would put up a few pictures of the fun we have been having together. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. For the following places I have gotten to go with my family, Fulbright deserves a thousand thank you’s.

London

Dublin

Paris

Rome

Until next time, Cheers.

A Few More Interesting Things from London Schools

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For those who read my March 5 post about five interesting things I had seen in London schools up to that point in my journey, what follows is the second part as promised. Since then I have continued to spend time in the Harlesden Convent school, my permanent placement while here, as well as visit and observe in a few other London secondary schools. During these experiences, I have witnessed the following in addition to those first five I wrote about in the initial entry on this subject.

6. Uniformity of Dress
In every school I visited students have worn an approved uniform. Jackets, slacks, and ties for the boys, and blouses, sweaters, and skirts for the girls are the most common outfits I have seen. Each school appears to have its own color scheme and crest which is proudly displayed on the outside of a select article of clothing. During a few observations, I even witnessed teachers not start the lesson until all students were wearing the uniform appropriately. Although I have mixed feelings about school uniforms having grudgingly worn one in my earlier Catholic school days, I have noticed that some of the social issues American students confront in terms of their daily attire appear to be nonexistent. I don’t know if this has a positive impact on student learning. What I do know is that less time is likely spent by UK students every morning trying to figure out if what they wear is going to impress their friends, something I know American students are very much concerned about.

7. 6th Form Independent Learning
The last two years of secondary schooling in the UK are referred to as 6th Form where students attend what are called colleges. These are years 12 and 13 which are the equivalent of the junior and senior years of study in the States. What interests me most about these is the independent learning that goes on at this level. By this time in their academic careers, UK students have chosen a coursework path which will culminate in their taking A-Level exams in the subject areas of their choice. Rather than taking classes that are heavily teacher-centered with the information being provided them, students in these courses are guided by their teachers on an independent, inquiry-based journey. This puts a great deal of responsibility for learning on the shoulders of the students, whose success on the exams plays a pivotal role in determining university placement. Of everything I have observed in UK schools thus far, this is by far what most interests me in terms of thinking about how we might improve secondary schooling in the States.

8. Gender Specific Schools
In all the London schools I have visited up to this point only two have been coed with the others being either all boys are all girls. This is something I am not used to as coed schools are the norm in the States, especially in terms of those supported with public resources. (It is important to note here the absence of a “wall of separation” between Church and State in the UK which prevents religious-affiliated schools in the US from receiving public money.) What I have witnessed in the gender specific schools, similar to what was mentioned above concerning uniforms, is the absence of certain social issues that naturally come with teenage boys and girls being together during the course of an eight-hour day. This is not to say that things are perfect. On the surface though, they do appear to be better and more centered on learning. I’ve taught at the secondary level in the States for 20 years and I can say from experience that going to school with members of the opposite sex does affect how some students learn. The social distractions that cause this do not seem to be as present in the London schools I visited that had single gender student populations.

9. Later Start Time
Many of the schools I have observed at don’t start the day until closer to 9:00 am. Although this may be because of transportation issues in London (kids either walk or use public services such as the bus and tube to get to school rather than school-specific buses like we have in the States) there are some benefits in terms of student attentiveness and teacher readiness. There is an abundance of research concerning later school start times, particularly for teenagers, and positive learning outcomes. Maybe I’m letting what these reports assert impact my judgment on this issue but it does seem that the students here are more attentive at the beginning of the day. The teachers also seem more prepared to teach, likely due to an extra hour in the morning for personal and professional readiness. Again, I don’t know if this has any effect on student learning. Personally, I do know how tough it can be to start class and engage students at 8:00 am or before as we do back home.

10. Extensive Teacher Training
This last interesting thing is less associated with my observations in schools and more with my experiences at University College London’s Institute of Education, specifically my involvement with the PGCE course taught by my advisor. PGCE stands for post-graduate certificate in education. Although there are many avenues to getting a teaching license in the UK, the PGCE route appears to be the most extensive and effective in training teachers. As the name suggests, students who take this course have already graduated from university. To be accepted into the program they have to go through a rigorous application process – at the IOE alone they will receive upwards of 400 applicants for only 50 spots in the course. (I got to be involved in a few of the interview days which were very intense for both the candidates and reviewers.) Those that are accepted go through a year-long experience where they attend lectures/lessons on campus while teaching at various placement schools. This is markedly different from the usual ten-week student experience that most undergrads go through back home.

If it isn’t already evident, I have enjoyed my time observing in London schools, working with teachers, and being involved with the PGCE experience at the IOE. With only a little more than a month remaining on my time here, I intend to make the most of it and continue to learn all that I can.

Unit next time, Cheers.

Double the Fun in Dublin

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This week presented me a great opportunity to visit a city I had always hoped I would be able to, and to present on my Fulbright inquiry project and the justice to history approach. I have been in Dublin for the past five days presenting at the Ireland International Conference on Education and touring the sites of a city rich in history. As I get ready to return to London tomorrow, I felt a few words were warranted while things were fresh in my mind.

Concerning the conference, I had a great time with some incredible scholars, all of whom are passionate about their research. I attended sessions on inclusive education that highlighted things such as cyberbullying, dyslexia, and religious education while enjoying some side conversations over tea and coffee.IMG_1679 I was blessed to not only present on the justice to history approach and Ali enquiry, but was thrilled to be asked to chair one of the sessions on inclusivity. Although the session slot was the dreaded last one of the conference, it was well-attending with the audience asking great questions after each paper. I am coming away from the experience even more confident that there are scholars out there who care as passionately about equality of educational opportunity and the importance of ensuring this is provided everyone.

Although the conference was great, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dublin spent sightseeing with family who came along with me. As Fitzgerald’s, it was only natural we eventually gravitateIMG_1687 to the country from where members of my family came so long ago (and eat in a pub of the same name). And Dublin was the perfect place to spend this time together. As a fan of Irish folk music, it was not only thrilling to hear the songs I have come to know and love sung live in the various pubs we visited for dinner, but was as much to walk along Raglan Road or through St. Stephen’s Green and hear the sweet melodies in my head of these same songs. IMG_1782To walk through the General Post Office where James Connolly, Padraig Pearse, and others gave so much in the cause of liberty and freedom for Ireland was humbling to say the least. To witness the beauty of the illumination in the Book of Kels and to tour Trinity College – this truly has been an experience I will remember forever.

But I must be honest – I miss London and look forward to my return. With some great opportunities and events coming up in the next two months (sadly, my last two here), I can’t be anything but excited. Until next time, Cheers…or should I say, Slainte!

Fulbright Fun, Family Style

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My Fulbright program is for six months – I arrived on January 3 and will be here until July 2. The first two and a half months I came over by myself, lodging in a terraced house in North Kensington with a lovely family who were welcoming and warm. Their hospitality was very gracious and I enjoyed my time with them immensely. I was welcomed at dinners and other events, joined them for Sunday evening movies, and was brought along to a number of gatherings in and around Notting Hill I will forever remember. Although all of this was fun, it was not as great as it could have been – I missed my family back home.

On March 19th my wife and three kids arrived at Heathrow Airport, tired, jetlagged, and a little apprehensive about the experience of living in England for three and a half months. As a month has passed since they got here, I figured now was as a good a time as ever to blog about how much we have enjoyed our time together. The Fulbright experience is incredible in its own right, but to be able to share it with family is priceless and something I will forever cherish.

We live in a lovely home (with a name rather than number which is fun), in a beautiful village, outside of a nice-sized town, in the county immediately north of London. Officially stated, we live in Wyndhurst, IMG_0306Piccotts End, Hemel Hempstead, Borough of Dacorum, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom. Our decision to live here was initiated at first by necessity – London is incredibly expensive and the cost of maintaining a home for five people would have been more than challenging. Quiet and peaceful, we have since fallen in love with the English countryside and the serene life it offers. With only a thirty-minute train ride on the London Midland back into the city (or a 45 minute Overground ride when we are a bit more leisurely), we truly are experiencing the best of both worlds in terms of what England has to offer.

As London is where I am working at both the IOE and Convent School, and where I was living prior to their arrival, experiencing it with family has been very fun. There is always something to do in London and we have been enchanted by the storied past that surrounds us.IMG_1206 From visiting Parliament Square after the recent tragic happenings to picnicking in St. James’ Park, from Buckingham Palace to the Horse Guard Parade Grounds, we are truly blessed to experience the city at this time. From strolling through Portobello Market with tens of thousands of others to meeting Fulbright friends at the historic Covent Garden, from the British Museum to the National Portrait Gallery, from seeing Wicked in the Victoria Apollo to seeing Phantom of the Opera in Her Majesty’s Theater, we are privileged beyond belief. And that is just our London adventures.

Out in the village we are privy to a different sort of amazingness, the serenity of the English countryside which I must admit, I am entranced by. From St. Mary’s ChurchIMG_1239 which has been a place of worship for the past 800 years to the Bury House chartered by the Tudors and accompanying gardens (both of which are less than a mile from where we live), from the cobble stone streets of Olde Town lined with antique shops and public houses to the public pathways through the greenest fieldsIMG_1533 I have ever seen, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar yet intoxicating. Although there are certain things we each miss about home, we are enjoying this experience very much. With a little over two months left in my program here, I can’t imagine everything we will get to do both here and in London.

Being at UCL-IOE and spending time at the Convent School in Harlesden have been incredible personal and professional opportunities I will likely never be able to replicate. Had they been the only things I did while IMG_1321here I still would have come away from the Fulbright experience a better person and educator than I was going into it. To be able to share the time with family is the icing on the cake, and for that I am eternally grateful to the Fulbright program for this opportunity. For anyone considering applying for the DAT grant, consider bringing your family along and finding a way to make it work. It will definitely enhance the experience and you will not regret it.

Until next time, Cheers.

 

A Basketball Break

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Whereas most schools in the US take a few days off during Easter Week, here in the UK there is a two-week break that begins the week before and runs through Easter weekend. Therefore, opportunities to visit schools and observe lessons are not available. Luckily, my move out to Hemel Hempstead, a community just north of London (more on that later), presented me with a unique chance to get involved with something that has always been close to my heart – coaching basketball.

For those unaware, I gave up being the boys varsity basketball at University High School, my alma mater and where I was once a player myself, to accept the Fulbright grant and opportunity to move to the UK for six months. Although while here my primary focus is inclusive history curricula and pedagogy, being able to help with school sports was something I hoped to do once I got here. When I decided to move out of London once my family came in mid-March (again, more on that later), I began to look up possible ways to do a little coaching during my time away from the classroom and Institute of Education. The US-UK Fulbright Commission had listed this as a way in which US teachers could help if selected and if they had experience in this regard. Having coached for over 20 years, I was eager to get involved anyway I could.

Basketball is not as popular here as it is back home. Living in Illinois, we are blessed to have a rich tradition of excellence in the sport. In the UK, its popularity rests behind football (soccer), rugby, cricket, and others unique to British history, which is entirely understandable. This does not mean there is absent a passionate group involved in growing the game through skills sessions, academies, and camps. One of these groups is Russell Basketball in Hertfordshire, the county in which Hemel Hempstead is located. Associated with the local pro-team, the Hemel Storm, the Russell group supports developmental youth programs throughout the area. One of these events was a camp held at John F. Kennedy High School in Hemel last Thursday and Friday. image3I was blessed to be involved in these camps and to have the chance to work with some great individuals who care deeply about the game and the young people of England interested in playing it.

On Thursday, we had 40 boys (one of whom was my youngest son) and girls from years 3 to 6 in school come for a 9am to 3pm session where we worked on developing skills and played some games. This was repeated the next day with 33 boys and 2 girls (one of whom was my daughter) in years 7 to 11. For both days, I was asked to be the guest speaker during lunch where I talked with the campers about basketball in the US and the importance of hard work in the classroom and sporting field. Both speaking sessions ended with time for questions which I really enjoyed. image2This was truly a great cultural experience as I learned that young people in the UK have very similar interests to their US counterparts. Our peoples are clearly connected by more than a common language, which is illuminating to think about and something I am going to pay even more attention to during the last few months of my Fulbright program.

An amazing side-story to all of this concerns meeting Khapri Alston, a player for the Hemel Storm who came to camp yesterday to work with the older group. Khapri is from Chicago, a few hours north of where I am from, and he attended Thornwood High School in South Holland before moving on to Midwestern State to play basketball. Amazingly, I coached against Khapri in 2011 at the State Farm Holiday Classic Tournament.IMG_1442 We both remembered each other as did some of my former players who I texted about our chance meeting that day. What a small world we live in where two Illinoisans can meet up at a basketball camp in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, almost 4,000 miles away from where we come from. Working with Khapri and the other camp coaches (Jack Burnell, Zak Wells, and Nichole Walker) is an experience I will never forget and always cherish. We have another camp session in early June and I can’t wait to get back into the gym with this group. It was a great basketball break that without the support of the Fulbright DAT program I would have never had.

Until next time, Cheers.

Ali and Enquiry – What’s it All About?

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Many of you reading might be wondering about the relationship between Muhammad Ali and my Fulbright experience. Having applied to specifically learn about how the nexus between national identity and diversity is being illuminated in U.K. history classrooms, one might find it interesting (or even confusing) as to how the specific focus of my project turned toward Ali and his life experiences. With guidance from my advisor at UCL-IOE as we dug deeper into the topic, what started as one lesson about Muhammad Ali within the context of my project soon turned into much more. As we have recently concluded the enquiry with years 10 and 12 at the Convent school, I felt now was a good time to provide an explanation for anyone interested.

First, a quick note on historical enquiry. This is a pedagogical model the history education program at the IOE strongly urges as best practice for teachers to use in their classrooms. (To be honest, this more than teachers engaging in diverse curricula and pedagogical strategies appears to be the international best practice I am learning the most about.) It centers on a key enquiry question designed to “upset the psyche” and inspire students to think critically about whatever historical topic the enquiry concerns. Regarding the Ali enquiry, after months of discussion (and yes, it does sometime takes months) we finally agreed on the following question – How did Muhammad Ali both intimidate and inspire Americans? Comprised of six lessons and designed to get the students thinking beyond the greatness of Ali that was reiterated in much of the news reported after his recent passing, the enquiry situates Ali’s life experiences within the context of the ideals underpinning what it means to be an American.

For this enquiry, I created six lessons intended to encourage the students to think critically about American ideals and how Muhammad Ali, in both an intimidating and inspiring manner, embraced and lived these during the most controversial time in his life.

Lesson 1 – What Does it Mean to be an American?
This lesson challenged students’ conceptions of what it means to be an American by looking at the ideals often iterated as underpinning this label and the reality for many in terms of their lack of application. IMG_0877It began by asking U.K. students to think about the word American and share whatever ideas came to mind. We then watched a brief video clip where John Cena discusses patriotism in America as being grounded in a sense of love for everyone, specifically in terms of our differences. The lesson then turned to Langston Hughes’ poem Let American Be American Again as the primary source to consider the paradox of ideal verses real in terms of the American dream. From each of these sources and the connected discussions, the classes came up with a concluding assertion that America has a great dream which many are prevented from living, a point I thought was incredibly insightful.

Lesson 2 – The Apotheosis of Ali
This lesson focused on the last twenty years of Muhammad Ali’s life, specifically the events surrounding the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where he surprisingly lit the torch at the end of the opening ceremonies and his passing in June of last year. After watching video clips of both events, news reports of the torch lighting and magazine covers after his passing were used to get the students thinking about how Ali was perceived by the public in the final years of his life.  As “The Greatest” was the phrase most often used to describe him in these sources, the students came away with a sense that he must have been more than just a talented boxer, which is what most only knew him as going into the enquiry. We purposefully put this lesson here to set the students up for the next three lessons, all of which concerned the controversy surrounding Ali in the 1960s. In terms of connection back to the first lesson, the students determined that Ali must have lived the American ideals which contributed to his annunciation as The Greatest in the last two decades of his life. It was at the end of this lesson we gave the classes the enquiry question.

Lesson 3 – What’s My Name, Fool?!
This lesson centered on the changing of his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali and the notion of agency. We watched contrasting clips from 1960 and 1966 where in the first, a young Cassius Clay is talking about how great his name is and its historical importance in Kentucky, while in the second, the newly-named Muhammad Ali verbally castigates Ernie Terrell for not referring to him as such in their pre-fight press conference. To help the students understand the importance of name and agency we watched a clip of Malcolm X talking about the notion of slave names and why it was important for African Americans to consider their names in relation to their heritage. The students seemed to enjoy this lesson as many wanted to freely talk about their own names and what they meant in familial and cultural terms. They clearly came away with an understanding about the connection between one’s name and identity.

Lesson 4 – I Don’t Have to Be Who You Want Me to Be!
The focus of this lesson was on the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Ali’s association with this group after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964. We looked at two newspaper articles from the Chicago Tribune. The first, from 1960, praised Cassius Clay as an American ambassador at the Olympic Village in Rome. The second, from 1966, described Muhammad Ali as going from hero to bum in only six years, the causes of which were directly related to his association with the Nation. We watched a series of video clips where Ali described the reasons behind becoming a Muslim and discussed how this and his decision to change names was both intimidating and inspiring to Americans. To help the students understand better the significance of Ali’s conversion in terms of the ideals discussed in the first lesson, we read the First Amendment and talked about association as a fundamental right. The students determined that there was nothing wrong with what Ali did and that his treatment was unjust in terms of the American ideal.

Lesson 5 – I Don’t Have No Quarrel With them Viet Cong!
The third of the lessons on Ali in the 1960s, this one concerned the war in Vietnam and his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army. Under the banner of “What was Ali’s greatest fight?”, we challenged the students to think about what it means to be a conscientious objector and whether Ali’s situation was relative to this. Using excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and a speech delivered in 1966 by Senator Fulbright on Higher Patriotism, the students determined that Ali was absolutely within his rights, particularly as a Muslim minister, to refuse induction. Coupled with the third and fourth lessons, the students came to see Ali’s actions during this critical period as an attempt – either conscious or unconscious – to restore his agency and that of other African Americans in a time of struggle and crisis. Essentially, they saw Ali’s actions regarding Vietnam and the Nation of Islam as examples of living out the American ideal discussed in lesson one.

Lesson 6 – Ali and the Advent of Hip Hop
Probably the most fun lesson I have ever prepared or taught, our final Ali session was on the influence of Muhammad Ali on the urban art form that emerged in the early 1980s known as Hip Hop.IMG_08911 Specifically, our goal was to get the students thinking about how Ali and Hip Hop, in terms of agency, afforded those who have been traditionally voiceless in American to have voice and be heard. We listened to Ali recite some of his famous poetry and discussed how unique this was for an African American man in the 1960s to be so boastful and braggadocios in the public arena. We then looked at lines from Ali poems and 1980s hip hop songs to see if the students could determine which was which – in all the classes we taught the success rate was only about fifty percent which showed the similarity between them. Four songs from the 1980s were chosen for analysis – Run DMC’s King of Rock, Big Daddy Kane’s Ain’t No Half Steppin, LL Cool J’s Mamma Said Knock You Out, and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. In each the students saw the influence of Ali’s pugilistic poetry and look-at-me message, determining that all were relative to the notion of agency and situated within the American ideal, specifically the right to engage in free speech and expression.

In simplest terms, our goal with the enquiry was to get students thinking about what the American ideal is, how this has been denied certain groups historically and is still today, how this affects the agency of individuals within these groups, and how those who stand up against this – Muhammad Ali being a classic example – are both intimidating and inspirational in terms of their actions and influence. Although vilified by many in the mid-1960s, Ali today is considered an iconic figure, representative of the best America has to offer and what the rest of the World hopes we stand for. He is and always will be, The GOAT!

Interesting Things I’ve Seen in London Schools Thus Far (Part 1)

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Since arriving a little more than two months ago I have had the opportunity to visit four different London schools, specifically to observe history lessons but also to take in the U.K. secondary education system as a whole. With more visits lined up at different schools the next couple of months, I figured now would be a good time to blog about what I have learned up to this point. Far from perfect, like their U.S. equivalents, London schools do have a few things I think would be beneficial for us to discuss and even consider adopting.

  1. Head Teachers (Principals) Who Still Teach
    In every school I have been in thus far the equivalent of American principals and their assistants are active classroom practitioners, teaching at least one class in addition to their administrative duties. In fact, in one school that was being reviewed by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), which is a really big deal here, the head teacher was one of those selected to be observed. In another, the head taught a class with half of the entire student body for one semester and the rest for the other making sure they would know every student in the building they lead. I find this fascinating in light of how firm we are in the States concerning administrators not teaching.
  2. Release Time for Department Heads/Lead Teachers
    Although in a few schools I visited teacher leadership positions were connected to monetary compensation similar to what I am familiar with in the States, in the others they were compensated with release time from teaching. In one school, a teacher I met with taught for one-third of the workday and spent the rest serving in a staff development and student welfare capacity. In another, the head of department taught one less class than everyone else to allow time for the administrative work connected to the position. Although some schools back home might do this, it is far more common for money rather than time to be given in these circumstances. One teacher expressed to me they liked extra time rather than a monetary stipend because it allowed them to both jobs better which in turn benefited the students rather than themselves.
  3. Marking Rather Than Grading
    Although I am not too keen on the incredible importance placed on the exit exams that U.K. students take in their courses at the end of each year, I very much appreciate the emphasis on marking student work as opposed to grading. In terms of the former, one teacher described the process as feedback designed to predict how a student will do on their exams rather than giving them grade for work completed. Another I spoke with talked about how ridiculous they considered the notion that those students not quite up to par in their class would be considered “failing” or similar to this as we label them in the States. Although these marks and predictions specifically concern how the students will potentially perform on a standardized exam, I perceive there to be something more sincere in them than what we do in terms of giving a letter grade.
  4. Staff Collegial (Tea) Time
    In every school I have been at there is a twenty-minute break in the day, usually around 10:40 am, where all staff members retired to a communal room for coffee, tea, and an assortment of pastries or small snacks. Lasting only twenty minutes, this brief moment in the day – beyond a nice, momentary pause mid-morning – affords staff members a chance to talk with one another that we really don’t have in the States. In those attended, I have conversed with teachers about anything from classroom pedagogy to personal preferences for music. Whatever the case, the discussions were cordial moments of collegiality in the course of the school day that I have never really witnessed back home.
  5. Staggered Schedule
    One of the hardest things for me to get use to since being here but something I have grown to appreciate is the staggered schedule teachers have. Whereas in the States we all most likely teach the same class at the same time everyday of the week, in U.K. schools this apparently is not the case. Rather than referring to these as classes, students attend lessons that are at different times on different days. A U.K. teacher might have a double-lesson on Monday with one class and not see them again until Wednesday for a single lesson. Looking at this entirely from a teacher’s perspective, this is a refreshing system that can eliminate some of the monotony of the week. For students, not having the same schedule everyday can be refreshing in a similar sense. As a side note, this also allows U.K. students to take more classes than U.S. students during a school year which might introduce them to wider array of subjects. For teachers, repeating a lesson more than once in a day or even in a week appears to be rare. Although this means there is more preparation for more classes, this doesn’t seem to bother U.K. teachers much.

To sum up this initial reflection (Part 2 will come shortly), U.K. secondary schools are doing some things I think we should discuss and possibly consider implementing. Marking that focuses on how students are progressing with their work rather than a letter grade, time for teachers to interact socially during the school day (and have a nice cup of tea), administrators who are still teachers, refreshing lesson schedules, release time for professional purposes – to be absolutely honest, I don’t see much bad in any of these.

Until next time, Cheers.

A Week of Thankful Reflection

Last week I blogged about some of the cultural things I have learned thus far while living in London. Since returning I have spent time at University College London (UCL) preparing my enquiry project lessons which I will begin teaching on Monday at the Convent school for three weeks. (More on that when the time comes.) While here it began to dawn on me how special the opportunity is to have not only been selected for the Fulbright, but also to have been chosen to be where I am. This blog entry stems from the serendipitous moment I had sitting on a bench in the quad of the main UCL campus building where, for some reason, how incredible it is to be at this institution finally sunk into my brain.

On Friday of last week, myself and another Fulbrighter were invited to lunch with Professor Michael Arthur, President & Provost of UCL and a fellow Fulbright Scholar who was at Mt. Sinai in 2002. A wonderful individual, he made us feel incredibly welcome with his warm reception and genuine interest in our research and programs. Our meeting was in the Wilkins Building where I sat outside for about 30 minutes prior to and simply admired the beauty of its neoclassical façade.img_0775 Begun in 1858 but finally finished over a century and half later to the original architect, William Wilkins’ design, it sits in the Central London area of Bloomsbury as a center of global learning. Widely regarded as one of the finest research institutions in the world, it is currently ranked 7th in the QS World University Rankings with only MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, Caltech, and Oxford ahead of it. To be here, to be absolutely honest, is somewhat surreal. I am humbled by the thought of forever being connected to such an incredible institution of research and learning.

When not at the UCL main campus or Convent school I spend my time at the Institute of Education (IOE) building which is just a short walk away. An immense structure with concrete walls and darkened windows, it is a testament to the strength and simplicity of brutalist architecture in its finest form. img_0853Designed in the mid-1970s by Sir Denys Lasdun, it has been described as “A gorgeous hunk of a building!” and is listed Grade II* which means it is of special interest and all efforts to preserve it in its original form should be taken. For the third year in a row, the Institute has been ranked by the QS World University Rankings as the #1 education research institution in the world. That fact, coupled with the overall ranking of UCL, means that I am researching and learning at one of the finest centers of enquiry an educator can be at. Surreal may not be a strong enough word to describe the experience.

I am at UCL-IOE because I specifically wanted to study with Dr. Robin Whitburn, a History Education lecturer here, and his colleague Abdul Mohamud. They are the founders of a project called Justice to History and authors of the book Doing Justice to History: Transforming Black History in Secondary Schools. Essentially, they are advocates for a more inclusive British history curriculum which is the focus of my Fulbright program on the U.S. side.

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I specifically applied to be at the IOE because of their work, something I deem to be essential on both sides of the Atlantic. Working with them weekly has been one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my life. Their passion for history education is incredible and their push for justice in this area commendable beyond words. Since day-one they have made me feel welcome and part of the team, and the success of my Fulbright experience thus far is largely due to their efforts in this regard. In simplest terms, between working with them and being at UCL-IOE I may be the most blessed history teacher in the world at this moment. And as I prepare this week to starting teaching my enquiry project on Monday, I felt it was time to express my complete appreciation for the opportunity I have been given this Spring.

To everyone who had a hand in my placement here, thank you!

Until next time, Cheers.

A Half Term Reflection

pavilionhotelIt has been a while since my last blog and waiting in Chicago O’Hare Airport for my flight back to London presents a great chance for a little reflection. (For those of you unaware, I came home for a few days to visit family and tie up a couple of loose ends.) With my brief return home I have had a unique chance to think about my experiences in the U.K. and how different things are between here and there. This blog entry will focus on those that come immediately to mind while waiting to board the Aer Lingus overnight flight that will get me back to London sometime midmorning tomorrow. As cultural emersion is an important part of our Fulbright experiences, here is what I have discovered so far during my first six weeks there.

Left is Right
Having spent my entire life on the right side of wherever I was – school hallways, escalators, stairwells, doorways, streets, etc. – it has been interesting to navigate around London almost exclusively on the left side. On the escalator, you get onto the one on the left, stay to the right side of the stair you are standing on if stationary, and get moving if you find yourself on the left side. When walking around, stay to the left to avoid those awkward situations where two people almost collide as they fake each other out on which way they intend to pass the other. When going through a door, open it on the left and be prepared to push more often than pull. In simplest terms, stay to the left and you will most likely not be wrong.

Get Out of Line and Into the Queue
There is no getting in line in London. The best way I can describe a moment of waiting among others to either get into a room or onto the tube is that everyone pools together and when presented the opportunity to move, does so in an amazingly orderly fashion. As the tube doors open, the queue (as it is called) pleasantly parts allowing those disembarking to do so before coming back together and moving as a mass into the tram. When going into the theatre, same rules apply. Before entering a classroom, ditto. The patient wait is impressive as it allows people to move at their own speed and respect others doing the same. No one seems pushy (so far) and everyone seems to accept the fact that in due time they will get where they want to go.

Half Term is Break Time
Having only been in London for a little over a month it might seem strange to some that I came home for a brief visit. Much of my decision to do so was because schools are not in session this week across the U.K. This week marks the half term and all schools are shut down making it impossible for me to do a school visit or teach lessons at the Convent school. An earlier version of our Spring Break, students and teachers go on holiday after the first five weeks of school, giving both a chance to rest, relax, and get away from the testing that is apparently very important. (More on that below.) So, with no school to attend I decided to spend a few days myself resting and relaxing back home. I’ll be back in London early tomorrow and the school visits, audited classes, and lessons will be back in full swing.

Test, and Test Often
Testing is an important part of the U.K. education system and students spend much of their time in the classroom preparing for the different ones they take during their academic careers. Grades administered by teachers, referred to as marks, are not the most important factor in determining the success of a student in the class but rather how well they do on their exams. This could impact which Sixth Form College (essentially our Junior and Senior years of high school) they might attend and their scores at this level could impact which university they get accepted to. I intend to write more about this as my understanding of the system improves. From what I can gather initially, the teachers are not so much teaching to the test but rather helping students increase their knowledge and improve in the skills they will be tested on. That being said, I can sense the pressure these exams cause considering their importance to the futures of U.K. students.

Pub Life is Life as Usual
Much of what goes on socially in London concerns the local pub. It is where friends congregate for a drink after work, to watch an evening or weekend football, rugby, or cricket match, or to eat a nice roast on a Sunday afternoon among a wide array of other reasons to visit. I have found myself almost every evening I am not downtown hanging out at the Pavilion (see picture above), the local pub around the corner from where I am living. (They have an incredible Caribbean chicken sandwich I can’t get enough of and an IPA called London Glory I appear to have an affinity for.) I’ve watched a few Six Nations rugby matches there, seen the same locals every night at the same table probably having the same conversations about their favorite teams, favorite players, the issues surrounding the Brexit vote, and our most recent presidential election. A week ago, a few lads sat down at my table and we all began talking as if we had known each other for years. We exchanged numbers and will likely see one another there again soon. Pub life is much different than in the States in that it seems to be a simple part of daily life, nothing more nor less.

That’s enough for now. In twelve hours I’ll be back in London and immersing myself even more than I already have in U.K. culture. Until next time, Cheers!

Inquiry, Enquiry, and Ali

As promised earlier, today I am going to blog about my Fulbright inquiry project and how it has been progressing since I got here. For those of you unaware, when you apply to be a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher you have to select a specific focus for your program – global awareness or international best practice – and explain why you need to go to the country you have selected to do what it is you propose to do. For my experience, I chose the U.K. in order to work with scholars at UCL-IOE (specifically my advisor Dr. Robin Whitburn and his colleague Abdul Mohamud) who are advocating for the creation of a more inclusive history curriculum in secondary schools here. Long story short, I am here to learn about how teachers are considering the nexus between national identity and diversity, race, immigration, and multiculturalism in U.K. secondary level history classrooms. My Fulbright inquiry project is to produce five lessons that can be used in U.S. history classrooms that look at this issue from our perspective and ultimately make our secondary curriculum more inclusive.

Robin and Abdul, authors of Doing Justice to History: Transforming Black History in Secondary Schools and coordinators of the Justice2History project, are advocates of a method of teaching called historical enquiry.9781858565521-682x1024 Essentially, this pedagogical approach encourages teachers to interrupt the psyche by getting their students to think critically about past events and the roles of individuals throughout history. A good historical enquiry begins with an essential question that informs the interruption. Through conversations with them, my inquiry project has morphed into an historical enquiry which I will be teaching in March at the Convent school and then bringing back to the U.S. for usage in my classroom and for anyone else interested. As mentioned above, my program concerns national identity and diversity. My historical enquiry has this as its central focus. The historical figure I am using to help illuminate the nexus between the two is Muhamad Ali.

I am currently in the process of constructing five lesson plans that aim to help students understand two things: 1) What ideals underpin the term “American” historically and in terms of the contemporary discourse? 2) Can the experiences of Muhammad Ali be used to help students better understand these ideals? Through my research on these questions and early construction of my lessons, I am slowly starting to envision Ali as an archetypal figure in terms of what it means to be an American. Though a controversial figure during much of his early life, his experiences are illuminating in terms of several ideals we have claimed and continue to assert as fundamental to our nation.

muhammad-ali

Ali presents incredible opportunities to discuss with students issues surrounding religion and association, civil disobedience and conscientious objection, agency and empowerment in terms of individual identity, and possibly my favorite – the power of pugilistic poetry in terms of providing a voice for the voiceless. Although not a hero (nor should he be considered one), he is iconic and a figure of global prominence. Since his passing a year ago, his reverential status has increased with eulogies across the world proclaiming his awesomeness. In my opinion, Ali presents incredible lens through which to look at many of the issues and concerns that are at the heart of America. It goes without saying, I am very excited to put these lessons together and teach them. As I continue to plan and prepare I will share more here and through my twitter handle @RobertFitz74. If anyone has any comments, questions, suggestions, or potential resources please feel free to share.