Innovation on Earth

Global Citizenship Resources for Innovation Academy and Beyond

Archive for the tag “Comparisons”

Happy Back to School (where applicable)!

Getting to know some students during the summer of 2007 while volunteering at a school in Kati, Mali (West Africa)

Tomorrow is our first day back at Innovation Academy Charter School. I always have some first day jitters, but I’m really excited to meet my new classes. It makes me wonder — is it the start of the year in other schools around the world? In my mind, September always brings a fresh start, but in South Africa, the winter is just ending now. In China, it’s still the Year of the Dragon until February. I wish I could see for myself… what’s happening tomorrow at schools around the world?

Students in Sikkim, India during one of my first experiences volunteer teaching in another country (2001).

I came across an interesting article today… and I think it comes pretty close to answering my question. It’s called 20 Classrooms Around the World and I saw it thanks to one of my colleagues from the Teachers for Global Classrooms program, the talented David Burton of Oklahoma).  The photographs are amazing, showing beautiful diversity — from Argentina to Yemen… from the faces of the children to the desks and chairs they occupy. I feel very lucky to have captured some of my own photographs of schools around the world during my travels.  I feel equally lucky to be home, starting a school year in the one school where I want to be teaching right now.  It’s good to be here, but I also feel just a little bit closer to some friends far away.

Our beautiful building in Tyngsboro, MA

A public school that I visited in May in Istanbul, Turkey

My classroom, ready to be filled with students tomorrow!

Students at the School for Migrant Children in the Fangshan district of Beijing, China

A glimpse of our new track and field off in the distance! The workers are finishing up.

Sport facilities at School 57 in Kyiv, Ukraine

Peaches from trees in the IACS garden that I picked last Friday. They are now jam!

Last summer, I toured the garden of a school in Inhambane, Mozambique (and picked some eggplant)

Our majestic school library

A classroom library at a private school in Istanbul, Turkey

Student work is now hung up on walls (Homebase Gandhi made this for their Global Citizenship Project).

Student work on display at the Zaporizhya Classical Lyceum (Ukraine)

Looking forward to seeing these silly friends tomorrow…

And already missing these friends in China, wishing them a fabulous first day of school, whenever it comes!

Wherever you are, I wish you a fresh start on your journey ahead.  There’s a lot to learn this year.

Beijing to Boston

It’s great to be back in Boston!  As I re-explore my hometown, I am seeing bits of Beijing everywhere.

The Charles River, Cambridge, MA

Lake at the Summer Palace, Beijing

Boston Hubway Bikes (which people can borrow by the hour)

Beijing Share Bikes

Lemonade Stand, Boston Common

Chinese yogurt drinks in clay cups (common on street corners)

Spider Web, Harvard Square

Giant spider and web at Cherry Lady’s farm, Fangshan district

The Neighborhood Restaurant, Somerville, MA

Beijing BBQ on the Terrace

Very old Red Line map (someone tore off the new map sticker), MBTA

Beijing Metro

The Freedom Trail, Boston

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Public Art Project (The Stranger Exchange), Davis Square, Somerville, MA

Graffiti in the 798 District, Beijing

Local glass blowing artist, Boston Green Fest

Musician at the Ethnic Minorities Park, Beijing

Very local tomatoes (from our house)

Dragon Fruit from Beijing

Granary Burial Ground (Cemetery for Paul Revere, victims of the Boston Massacre, and more), 350 years old

Forbidden City, 600 years old

I’m not surprised that these similarities exist. I’m most shocked that when I look at these pictures, I feel like they’re all “home” in some sense of the word.  I only spent 7 weeks in China, but it got pretty comfortable and familiar.  And it’s fun to be a tourist in my own city; taking photographs helps to see my surroundings in a new light.  It’s good to know that “home” and “away” can be found anywhere.

Why don’t we do that too?

China makes me awe struck, and it makes me laugh a lot too! It’ll be weird to go home where most things makes sense.

I only have one more full day in China, and then I come home to U.S. soil! I am so excited to get back to Massachusetts, see family and friends, and enjoy all of the American treats that I’ve missed.  Even so, there are many things that I will miss about being here (that I can’t buy in a market to bring home).  What I’ll miss most is the way that Chinese people think differently.  Most places around the world have been colonized by Europeans at some point in their history, like the United States.  China is one of the few places on the planet that avoided European influence until much more recently.  As a result, the Chinese do many things differently than we do in the United States.  Many of their methods are very innovative, and make me think, “Why don’t we do that too?” Here are my top ten favorite Chinese Innovations:

1. The Water Clock – The Chinese invented the water clock in ancient times, possibly even more than 6,000 years ago. It uses flowing water to measure time. As you can see in the video, when the water level rises to a certain point, it makes the man chime. The Chinese also used the sun and fire to measure time (you’ve probably seen a sundial and the incense clock is pictured in a previous post).

2. Bar Code Lockers – Why bother with a locker key? At the Wu-Mart Supermarket here, push a button to open a locker and a little bar code prints out. You can put your bags in there while you shop, and then use the bar code to open your locker after.

3. Misting Ads – On hot days, you can stand in front of advertisements and get misted with water.  It makes you much more likely to read the ad!

4. Sensing Escalators – Some escalators here slow down when not in use. What a great way to save energy!

5. Dumplings – They are delicious and shouldn’t we all eat more of them? You can put anything inside.  At one restaurant, I filmed the chefs making their masterpieces.  Maybe I can practice at home using this as a model:

6. Informative and Fun Subway Signs – In addition to showing cartoons and other TV on the subway, the signs on the subway cars give very helpful information, such as what stop you are currently at, and which side the door will open on.  In Boston, I am always having to guess which way the door will open.

7. Accessibility for the Blind — Here in China, blind people have it much easier.  The money is all different in size, so a blind person can feel the difference between a 100 yuan bill and a 5 yuan bill.  Also, there is braille on the end of the hand railings at each subway stop, so that they know which exit to use.

A new friend peeks at me from the middle bunk (it’s like a triple bunk bed!)

8. High Speed Trains — We rode the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai. It traveled over 300 km per hour and took 5 hours when the regular train took 14 hours. Even though it was a lot slower, the sleeper train was fun too, because we got to make friends with some cabin-mates. After we got off the overnight train, an attendant came around and flipped all the seats manually, so the train could go the other direction. Trains are a great way to travel, and I wish we had more of them in the U.S.!

9. Mega-Sized Restaurants — There are huge complex-type restaurants here with many floors.  The nice ones have hallways with private rooms for each table.  When you arrive, the host will show you to your room, like in a hotel, and that room is yours for the evening. There are almost always enormous “lazy susans” for sharing food.

10. Peking Duck — Beijing’s old name was Peking, and duck is very popular here. I heard about a restaurant where you get a number code for your duck when you eat there. Afterwards, you can look up your duck online and read about its life — where it lived, how old it was when it died, and more. I think this is a great idea, so that people appreciate their food more! Even if you don’t go to this fancy place, you still appreciate the whole duck. They serve it all, even the head, and then after you eat the meat, the chef makes a soup out of the carcass. It’s delicious!

If you could bring one of these innovations back to the United States, which one would you bring?

Easy as ABC

Have you ever heard the saying “it’s as easy as ABC?”  This is a common expression, but many small children struggle to learn to read at first. It takes a good teacher to support students through all new lessons, whether big or small.  I was shocked to learn that something as simple as the ABC song is actually taught differently here in China.  This blows my mind:

Does good teaching look different in China? I don’t think so.  Since I arrived here, I’ve met three inspirational women who have taught me a lot about what it means to be a great teacher. I will strive to be like them.

#1: Annie: Beginner Mandarin Instructor at the Hutong School

What does she do that’s awesome? Annie makes sure that every student in her Mandarin classes is learning. She gets everyone involved, and if you need extra help, she’ll always go back over something. She is very kind and friendly, but she keeps class serious and focused, so that lots of learning is happening.

Why is she such a great teacher? Whenever I left Annie’s classes, I thought to myself, “Wow! I learned so much more than I thought I could today!” Annie always reviewed what we studied that day so that I could really see my progress.

#2: Terese (otherwise known as Cherry Lady): Organic Farmer Extraordinaire, Beijing God’s Grace Garden Plantation

What does she do that’s awesome? Cherry Lady used to be a successful business woman, but she left everything to dedicate her life to her mission. She works to produce healthy food without the use of any chemicals. For the past 12 years, she’s been living the dream.

Why is she such a great teacher? Cherry Lady couldn’t be more passionate about her work.  When I asked her if her farm makes a profit, she said that she’s working to pay off the debt that human beings owe to nature.  When she talks, you know that something important is coming up, so you better listen. Here’s a taste of her wisdom, but I’m working on a longer video to publish soon:

#3: Helen: Founder, Migrant Children’s Foundation

What does she do that’s awesome? Helen originally came to China for a break from her life in the U.K., but she learned about the poor opportunities for children of migrant workers in China, so she stayed to do something about it. She now lives full time in Beijing and runs a foundation to support 7 schools for migrant children.

Why is she such a great teacher? Helen gets things done. When our group arrived to volunteer at one of her schools, Helen was a task master about getting our project completed (except during popsicle breaks). Today, I watched her organize a collection for a woman who lost her home in the recent storms. It was the single most amazing experience I’ve had donating money. We took the money out of our wallets and put it directly into the hand of a family in need. Helen is all business and all heart. Together, the action taken is powerful.

Volunteers and migrant children celebrate their work repainting the school building
(I made balloon hats, because they make every celebration more festive!)


The word in Mandarin Chinese for teacher is “Lao Shi.” I am a classroom teacher, but all of us have the opportunity to teach others. What are you teaching, and how will you make your lessons extraordinary?


It’s easy to think that there’s only one right way.  I often think that things that I’m used to back home are just “normal” everywhere.  Yesterday, I saw a guy on the side of the road with a pet turtle on a leash, and today I saw a cat on a leash. I had to laugh at both because it was so unusual for me.  I’m used to seeing dogs on leashes, but it’s a strange sight to see other animals like this. It made me stop and think — is my perspective correct?

Over the past few days, I’ve been touring around Shanghai with our second group of students.  My view of the city is vastly different the second time around.  Seeing something for the first time makes all of my senses come alive. I notice things differently, and I am so busy looking around that I can barely focus on anything else.  Returning here, I am starting to notice different things about the city, and I’ve also had more time to focus on other things, like conversations with others and shopping.

Shanghai is a massive city, and I have been seeing it from a number of different perspectives.  No matter which view, visiting Shanghai feels like going into the future.  Here’s the view from just below the World Financial Center (the building on the left).  The building on the right is shorter, even though it looks taller.

Here’s the view from the top of the World Financial Center, pictured above on the left.  Last time we went, it was very cloudy (see that post here). We got a clear day this time around.  Wow!  Notice below the lighted up building in the front — that’s the building on the right in the picture above.

Finally, here’s a view from across the river, taken a few hours ago:

Which view is the best? In my opinion, the world is a more beautiful place with multiple perspectives.

A Nation of Nations

A random Chinese woman asks to pose for a photo with members of our group

At first glance, China seems really homogenous.  Everyone on the street looks to be the same race, and members of our group stand out a lot.  In fact, random Chinese people often approach us and ask to take a picture with us.  We usually say yes, and the people are often extremely excited. Most likely, these people are visiting Beijing from the countryside, where they aren’t exposed to people of different races very often.  It’s hard for me, as an American, to imagine growing up this way.

Official records say that most people in China are from the Han ethnic group (about 96%). But did you know that there are 56 ethnic minorities in China? In fact, there are many “races” in China and it’s much more diverse than people think. These groups are small in numbers, but important to the rich history of China.

The sign outside the Ethnic Minorities Park, showing one person from each of the 56 different ethnicities in China.

A kitten at the park who is very different… and beautiful!

Yesterday, I visited the Ethnic Minorities Park, which ironically, I heard used to have a big sign in front of it that said “Racist Park.” This was a very sad and incorrect translation, which got corrected before the 2008 Olympics.  In fact, the goal of the park is to prevent racism by exposing people to each of China’s ethnic minorities to help build appreciation for the diversity in China. The park is set up a bit like Epcot in Disney World, with simulations of various villages from around China.  So, if a foreigner is visiting China and doesn’t have time to see the whole country, they can see bits of pieces of everything in Beijing! I was amazed to see all the different types of homes and lifestyles.  If you look at the pictures below, I think you’ll also be surprised at how diverse it is.  We all need to learn to appreciate our differences — because you might be surprised at how beautiful they turn out to be.

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Loving School

A new friend I made in Goreme, Turkey

Throughout my trip, I visited 7 different schools in Ukraine and Turkey. I saw schools that serve pre-school kids all the way up through high school, and schools that work with kids who are gifted, special needs, or average.  Each school was different from the others in some way. All of the schools that I visited had teachers who really cared and wanted to be there for the students.

A student at Zaporizhya Classical Lyceum says hi

The last school that I visited at the end of my time in Istanbul was the first private school that I saw.  It was very apparent that they had money to get the best for their students.  The facilities were beautiful.  If you watch the video below, you’ll see just a glimpse of their amazing resources — computer labs, projectors, gym spaces, giant chess sets and ping pong tables in the open areas, great food for lunch, etc.  It was truly impressive.  Even more  amazing were the people, who come from all over the world to teach there.  It made me stop for a minute to consider a move to Istanbul to work there.

Don’t worry — I won’t really move to Turkey.  I love my community and my job too much. I feel lucky to work at a school like Innovation Academy that fits me so well, and I don’t think that money buys a good school.  This private school, for example, still has to teach the Turkish national curriculum, and they still need to spend large portions of their time preparing for standardized testing.  In the elementary grades, they are able to do really creative, interdisciplinary work, but once students hit middle school, they need to focus on preparing for exams. Hearing the teachers talk about this problem made me think of our challenges at IACS, trying to balance MCAS preparation and more holistic projects that have real-world application. Some issues are universal to all schools, no matter where they are.

I love working at Innovation Academy, and I am thrilled to go back to school tomorrow after this three week trip.  It’s been a long time and I am excited to see all my students and coworkers.  How many students love going to school? This whole experience has made me wonder, “What does make a good school?”  Is there any universal answer that would be true around the world? Any readers out there have a magic answer? Please share your ideas!

A master teacher and some of her students in Kyiv







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