“Being Our Own Agents of Learning!” Sharing Experiences from 2015-16 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program

Written by  Monday, 16 May 2016 15:38
Graduation Photo on December 8th, 2015 Graduation Photo on December 8th, 2015

“If you want something in this life, reach out and grab it.” – Christopher McCandless

 

      Embarking on the 2015-16 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program journey has been the best experience of my life. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t sure what my responsibilities would be before I left for the United States. It was not until I arrived in Washington, D.C. for the orientation workshop that I realized what a huge honor it is to be accepted as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards Teacher. Participating in this workshop made me truly thankful to both the United Stated of America and Taiwan for this once-in-a-life time opportunity. At the workshop, it was refreshing and powerful to interact with all of the previous Distinguished Teachers and listen to their Fulbright experiences. Their passion for education touched my heart and motivated me. I promised myself at the orientation that I would make the most of my time to observe and learn during the four-month program at Indiana University. 

 

Life at Indiana University  

      The diversity and vitality of campus life at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) left a strong first impression. It’s such a beautiful school, with abundant resources, great restaurants, and a wide variety of cultural events. This year all the DATs (Distinguished Awards Teachers) were housed in the same dormitory, Evermann, which allowed us to get better acquainted with one another. During the program, we organized a couple of potlucks and guitar parties in the dormitory. As the 17 of us had been living so closely and shared the same hallway, we spent a lot of time together, meeting up for jam sessions and impromptu singalongs in each other’s apartments. We also bonded over more than a few birthday celebrations. Not only did we take care of each other, but we also supported and encouraged each other throughout the journey. 

 

      Living on Indiana University campus was exciting and convenient. Libraries, auditoriums, museums, and restaurants were all within walking distance. The campus bus system made getting around fast and easy, allowing us to enjoy IU’s vibrant cultural life. Most of us attended events on at least a weekly basis, because prices to the events were so affordable. Personally, I attended three operas: The Barber of Seville, Dead Man Walking, and Die Fledermaus at the Opera and Ballet Theater. I also attended a speech by Congressman John Lewis and saw The Phantom of the Opera at the IU auditorium. IU’s guest speakers delivered innovative lectures, some of which were beneficial for our inquiry projects. For example, Professor Thomas Reeves’s talk on Design Thinking, and Dr. Nancy Folbre’s lecture on The Political Economy of Patriarchal Systems were interesting and thought-provoking. Also, the grand opening of a Makerspace at IU’s School of Education provided me with new perspectives on my inquiry project proposal. Campus also features research centers enabling interaction with people who are interested in ethnic studies or cultural exchanges. I volunteered my services as a Chinese tutor with the Chinese Flagship Center, and participated in a language exchange program with the Offices of International Services at Indiana University. Overall, the university is a wonderful place for research and recreation.   

 

 

The CIEDR Staff at IU and the School Visits

      The CIEDR (Center for International Education, Development and Research) staff at Indiana University were hospitable and helpful. They guided us on academic and social matters during our stay in Bloomington, helping us adapt smoothly to this challenging, new environment, making sure we were aware of the cultural calendar and inviting us home for potlucks and barbecues. The school visits that they organized made our stay in Indiana even more productive and memorable. Schools that we visited included: 

      1. Bloomington, Indiana 
          A. Bloomington High School North (Our Host school, Public School) 
          B. University Elementary School (IB- International Baccalaureate School) 
          C. The Project School (Multi-age classes, Project-based Learning School) 
      2. Indianapolis, Indiana 
          Christel House Academy (Charter School) 
      3. Columbus, Indiana 
          A. Columbus Signature Academy-Fodrea Elementary School (Project-based Learning School)
          B. Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech High School (Project-based Learning School) 
      4. Chicago, Illinois 
          The University of Chicago Lab Schools (Private School) 
 
      Of all the schools we visited, the Fodrea Elementary School impressed me the most deeply. Walking into this school, I saw a spacious lobby with a spiral staircase leading up to the high ceiling. Large windows in every classroom created an open-space learning environment for students and teachers to learn and grow. Implementing Project-based Learning (PBL) provides a revolutionary pathway for learning and prepares students to be socially engaged citizens. It’s a school that cultivates students’ collaboration, communication and technological skills. Projects are based on student interest; they are given a voice in the choice of project topics and are encouraged to work to create community impact as they learn. Students conduct at least one service project every year. Students retain their learning experience and agree that their leadership skills increase with each project they conduct. 
 
      Morning meetings and town hall meetings are held to help build relationships between students. During the morning meetings, students gather to read to one another, learn how to make good eye contact, shake hands, and help resolve conflicts. Students take turns facilitating meetings and presenting their project proposals to the audience. They learn how to make presentations and to share their project experience/outcomes with other students/teachers through technology. According to the principal, what they are doing for the students is helping to create the world’s future employees.
 
     A work station system stands out in this school. Based on test results, students are classified at the very beginning of the semester. There are groups at each of 5-6 stations in each class, of which only 1 station is comprised of students with similar test results, while the rest of the groups are heterogeneous. At each station, students refer to task cards to meet state standards. Every station assigns different tasks, and students rotate every 15-20 minutes. Teachers help one homogenous group of learners at their station while the rest of the heterogeneous student groups solve the given tasks at their stations. Students are constantly regrouped so as to make sure every student learns from one another. The tone and climate in the classroom is positive and pleasant, with every student engaged in his or her work and helping others complete the assigned tasks. 
 
      Students at PBL schools perform beyond expectations on standardized tests. The principal proudly presented data showing the increasing percentage of their students passing standardized tests in both math and language arts. I was amazed by their performance and once again convinced that the students’ potential is boundless, as long as we provide them with opportunities to learn and grow.  
 
      Various school visits allowed us to better understand how American school systems differ from the schools in our home countries. Furthermore, in order to help us integrate into the Bloomington community and American culture, CIEDR staff connected us to Bloomington Worldwide Friendship (BWF), through which we were matched with hospitable local host families, who planned plenty of shared and individual activities, such as picnicking, going to ball games, hiking and having meals together. My host family’s hospitality and friendliness made my stay in Bloomington far more memorable. 
 
Auditing 
      Each grantee was required to audit two classes and attend a Friday Seminar, all of which generated substantial benefits for our professional development. The two classes I audited were: “Class R546-Instruction Strategies for Thinking, Collaboration and Motivation,” and “Class L631-Multicultural and International Literature for Children and Young Adults.” I would like particularly to highlight the significant impact that Class R546 had on me. 
 
      When I was going through a list of courses provided by CIEDR, one course description caught my eye: “…to facilitate thinking, collaboration, and motivation.” In addition to this, the bottom of the description read: “…course highly recommended by 2014 Fulbright Distinguished Teachers!” Without a second thought, I decided to audit this class even though it was held on Saturday morning. The reason I made this commitment was because traditional teaching methods in Taiwan suffer from a lack of critical and creative thinking as well as a dearth of collaborative techniques. I feel sure that learning to implement these ideas and pedagogical style in my classes will strengthen my professional development. In order to develop my feeling of empowerment in my school in Taiwan, I need to apply the innovative concepts I have learned through this course. 
 
      This class, Instruction Strategies for Thinking, Collaboration and Motivation, left a deep impression on me. I learned what I could apply towards my inquiry project as well as taking lessons forward in my professional teaching career for both classroom management and instructional strategies. The professor is by far the most passionate, energetic, resourceful, dedicated, entertaining, and inspirational educator I have ever met. He conducted his class in a way that kept us motivated and focused every second we were in class; sometimes I didn’t even realize five hours had passed. His innovative pedagogical strategies have granted me a fresh perspective on how to provide a motivational learning environment. 
 
      For eight weeks, we covered such themes as TEC-VARIETY and R2D2, collaborative and cooperative learning, critical and creative thinking. I especially loved the teaching methods introduced in the TEC-VARIETY and R2D2 models. TEC-VARIETY is an acronym for various motivational strategies: Tone, Encouragement, Curiosity, Variety, Autonomy, Relevance, Interactivity, Engagement, Tension, and Yielding products. R2D2 refers to Reading, Reflecting, Displaying, and Doing. These teaching techniques include the talking string method, the psychic massage, and the little known fact, to name but a few. In this class, the professor also introduced us to a variety of online resources. Back in Taiwan, I will implement an instructor course introduction video to be used in my homeroom class or new English (TESOL) classes so that students can get to know me before we meet. Voice feedback is also effective, and this too is a method I will apply to the weekly journals of my homeroom students. News and educational videos (TED/FloraTV/BBC/CNN) will definitely be integrated into my writing classes to motivate and stimulate my students’ critical and creative thinking. I may also hold an open classroom activity for my students so that they can prepare any topic they are interested for sharing with the class, and apply feedback strategies I acquired by auditing this course. Last but not least, I’ve begun to consider how different classroom layouts provide diverse atmospheres for students and have an important impact on teaching and learning. In this class, the classroom layout changed almost every week, which created a more fun and exciting learning environment for us to experiment with.   
 
Professional Development Grant 
      Applying for the Professional Development Grant (PDG) through the Institute of International Education (IIE) also helped enrich my Fulbright experience. Most of my cohorts made use of the grant to attend conferences in different parts of the U.S.A., but I took the PDG opportunity to visit a maker school, which is listed as the Number 13 Most Innovative School in the World by TECH INSIDER. This school visit solidified my interest in Project-based Learning and inspired me to propose creating a Makerspace in my school. I am wholeheartedly thankful to IIE for such a great opportunity. 
 
      The PDG (Professional Development Grant) Trip to visit Brightworks in San Francisco. It was a great privilege to visit this school and to interact with the teachers and students there. This school offers a totally different learning environment for students to learn and grow. Students there are creative, willing to learn, and most importantly, they are happy and active learners. I interviewed some students there and most of them had had a difficult time in their previous schools, citing issues such as bullying, depression, and learning disabilities. In interviews, they were willing to talk about their past learning experiences and how their school influenced their lives. They were cheerful and devoted to what they are learning. Students have a lot of autonomy because they are allowed to work on any project that they are interested in.
 
      This school offers trust and support to its students, creating family-style relationships. There are no traditional classrooms; only small, cozy places furnished with small pillows, cushions, and couches for students to sit or lie down to read, to learn, and to work with one another. They call these places “bands.” Students in each band take responsibility for what they do, work hard to obtain permission for what they hope to do, and have the ability to decide what they want to do. Like the other PBL Schools I visited, this school has a different name for teachers as well. They call their teachers collaborators. The role of the collaborator is to work with students on their projects. Students are encouraged to come up with project ideas and to work with their collaborators on their proposals before presenting them to the founder for approval. In this school, learning isn’t about collaborators telling students what to do; instead, students participate in the discussion, have their voices heard, and become the co-author of their education. As the founder pointed out, “A true life-long learner is the co-author of his/her education” and continued, “It actually takes obsession and devotion to make great art.” The school runs without curriculum or homework. When I was there, I saw students spending their whole day working on go-carts, mosaic wall art, laser cutter, or welding projects. Collaborators worked and learned with the students on these projects. 
 
      The founder compared the traditional school curriculum framework to listening to 7-8 audio books a day. To encourage the students to learn without any disruption, he put forward the arcs framework, which offers students with the opportunities to delve into learning through three stages: Exploration, Expression, and Exposition. This year, the three arcs are rock, seeds, and human. This school teaches students to learn by doing, to communicate and collaborate, to demonstrate passion through self-directed projects, and to have tenacity to make change happen. 
 
      A very important part of conducting a project is the exhibition of a final product to parents at the end of the project. The founder emphasized that all forms of human expressions are valued. If students fail to complete their final products, they can present the process of the project as well as proof of their effort. What counts is their reflection on their project or the portfolio they have accumulated during the process. 
 
      Overall, this school offers students a hands-on learning environment and encourages students to develop abilities to solve any problems they encounter. The learning environment there is merrier, more colorful, and more spacious. This school visit solidified my interest in Project-based Learning and inspired me to propose creating a Makerspace in my school. Simply put, a Makerspace is a meet-up place for people to get together and create anything with tools, materials, and technology. As my school is an industrial high school, I believe that having a Makerspace will not only make learning more meaningful and interesting for both students and teachers, but also will increase the level of collaboration among them. As far as my homeroom class is concerned, I would also like to apply the band idea by providing my students with a corner filled with cushions, rugs, and books for them to work, interact, and relax. The corner may also serve as a place for advisory, consultation, and sharing.
 
Halloween, a Significant Cultural Event!  

      I celebrated Halloween for the first time when one of the professors in the Education Department invited us to his house for a “spooktacular” party. People in Bloomington are really festive and it’s nice when a whole community gets into the spirit. The day before Halloween, my cohorts and I went to the costume shop. Though it was slim pickings, we managed to chuck something together: pirate, witch, grim-reaper, and Lady Gaga. We also got to witness how American children and parents go trick-or-treating on Halloween. It was fascinating to see little children all dressed up, knocking on doors. Whenever the doorbell rang, I got so excited, running to the basket filled with candies to give out the candies to the children at the door. It was an unforgettable and unique experience. 

 

      In addition to the party, my host teacher from Bloomington High School North also invited me to celebrate Halloween with her students at school. She made a great effort to decorate her lab and set up chemistry-inspired magic shows at different stations in her lab. The climax of her Halloween show was the spectacular pumpkin explosion. When the face of the pumpkin lit up and smiled at us, we were all shocked and a bit scared. I had a fabulous time with my lovely cohorts and friends on Halloween.

 
Project Presentation Day and Goodbye Bloomington 

      On December 7th and 8th, we gave our final presentations on our inquiry projects. The event consisted of two consecutive days of sharing our work with each other, with university staff, with faculty advisors, and representatives from the Institute of International Education and the States of Department. My presentation went well and I received plenty of positive critiques and insightful comments from my cohorts and professors. Some of the projects were particularly significant in terms of special education. It was quite humbling to listen to my cohorts who were trying to introduce education for the blind in a country with no provision for this disability, or changing deaf education in a country where deaf children fail and drop out because no allowances are made for them. These colleagues are not just doing innovative, but also urgent and important, work. Despite their challenges, I am confident they will make a difference in their countries. 

 

      The last week of our program culminated in our inquiry project presentations and graduation festivities where representatives from Indiana University, the Institute of International Education and the Department of State handed us certificates to mark the official end of our program. We went to thank our host teachers at the local high school, had a farewell dinner with the amazing CIEDR staff who have helped us so immeasurably, and attended a farewell dinner event organized by Bloomington Worldwide Friendship at the University Club. On our very last night, one IU professor, whose band we had gone to watch in our first week in Bloomington, was having an album release party at a local pub. He invited us to the party and we put on a singing performance as a final goodbye that night. In nine different languages, we took turns singing parts of “Country Roads, Take Me Home.” It was a bittersweet night, since we were leaving behind sixteen extraordinary friends and cohorts as well as many incredible locals who have offered genuine friendship. I have been really surprised to become so attached to people in such a short amount of time. It would seem that sharing food, laughter, frustration, music, a cup of tea and a hallway, is a shortcut to deep and abiding friendship. 
 
      Parting is difficult, especially when you are leaving people you care deeply about. I take it particularly hard because that's the way I show my love. Someday, our paths will cross again, hopefully in the near future. Until then, I wish all my friends and acquaintances in Bloomington happiness. My chapter at IU has closed, but a new one begins.
 
      The Fulbright Distinguished Awards Program is by far the most empowering and refreshing program in which I have ever participated. It is designed not only to promote international cultural and educational exchange, but also to provide invaluable professional development for teachers from all over the world. I have learned so much, and look forward to sharing my experiences with my fellow teachers in Taiwan. The friends and colleagues I met throughout this journey, as well as all of the teachers’ masterful instruction, will be discussed in every upcoming workshop. This essay is a thank you, a sincere message of gratitude to all those who made this adventure possible. Thank you to all the wonderful people who shared this time and place and took me into their hearts. Thank you to Bloomington, Indiana, USA.
 
 
Program: 2015-16 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program 
Participant: Minsyuan Sandy Tsai
Inquiry Project: The Implementation of Project-based Learning in the United States as Compared with Taiwan
Home Country: Taiwan (Republic of China)
Host Country: United States of America
 
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