Insurance’s Outsize Influence on Global Travel

It seems that each year, insurance requirements increasingly affect our school global programs in a way that threatens their emphasis on social responsibility and global citizenship. This year, our school cancelled its annual student trip to Colombia because our insurance company would not cover travel to a country that is on the U.S. State Department’s warning list. From the State Department:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota and Cartagena, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.

For the insurance company, this is a blanket rule. If the country is on the warning list, for whatever reason and region, the company will not insure the school for travel to that country. From our point of view, no insurance results in no trip. This was difficult to swallow when we had been traveling to Colombia for years, in partnership with a local school, and in a manner that maximized student safety. It is not easy to sever the close, personal relationships among staff members of these schools for these reasons.

Presumably, the Hotchkiss suit of 2013 played a role in changing insurance company attitudes toward global student travel. One $41 million case likely had an outsize effect on their practices, and consequently, school travel abroad. On the optimistic side, a business opportunity now exists for an insurance company to design travel insurance that considers the nuances within the State Department travel warning list.

I am also seeing these effects as I organize the fifth U.S. tour of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band. This year, schools have inquired whether Maru-a-Pula School holds international travel insurance. I also had a college theater that we are renting require liability insurance, to protect the school in case an audience member were injured at our show. It appeared that we might have to cancel the show, until we discovered that the college also provides a one-time, $50 liability insurance purchase option. I have a hard time understanding how our $50 purchase protects the college from a million dollar lawsuit, but clearly the insurance industry is operating on its own particular economic models. Each trip, it becomes more onerous for a volunteer such as myself to bring a marvelous student marimba group from Botswana to the U.S.

Twenty years ago, independent school global travel was dominated by language study and cultural immersion to Spanish and French-speaking countries. Since then, most independent schools have completely transformed their global travel programs, updating their missions for social responsibility and global citizenship. This has resulted in travel to Asian, African, South American, and other destinations. Most destinations are selected because a school community member has a personal connection with the target country. Will insurance companies adapt to the travel patterns of independent school global programs, or will schools have to adjust their destinations to stay in line with State Department warnings?

Course of Study Communications

In place of the customary evening parent meetings, I have produced two videos to orient U Prep families to the process of course of study planning. I hope to ultimately reach more families by producing a talk that parents can view at any time. I’ll also leave these videos on our online Course of Study pages for prospective families to view in the future.

Data Visualization For Learning

While written and oral language dominate instruction, the explosion of visual information has created new opportunities to represent complexity, reveal themes, explore data, and communicate information in powerful ways. Here is an overview of some of my favorite examples of visual data representation for education.

Molecular Models

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 2.20.36 PM


Image from

Students cannot see individual molecules and are normally confined to shaded textbook illustrations and small plastic model building kits. Molecular modeling software represents data from crystallographic analysis of substances as 3D graphics. This allows students to more fully develop their mental concept of molecules through zoom, rotation, color, and different representations (line, spheres, mesh, etc.). Students can quickly load and manipulate dozens of different molecules (e.g., amino acids), or large molecules with interesting symmetries and structural regions (e.g., DNA, proteins).

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 2.21.00 PM

An alternate representation of water (

Graphs and Charts

Most of us cannot discern patterns and trends in numerical data and instead rely on graphs to reveal them. Commonly available graphing tools have continued to improve in sophistication and integration with specific types of data sets.

GapMinder opened many eyes to the explanatory power of visually representing a huge variety of demographic data. Trends in HIV infection rates, distribution of wealth, and dozens of other data sets become visible through bubble charts. Animation makes visible trends as the data changes over time.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 2.42.19 PM

HIV Epidemic 1980-2009, GapMinder

Logger Pro draws line graphs of experimental data collected from Vernier data probes. This creates nearly instant visual representations of physical phenomena as they happen.


WorldMapper displays international demographic data differently, by distorting the sizes of countries based on different demographic measures. Map mashups have taken social networks by storm in the past year, whether in the more complex form that shades states (or even counties) based on different measures or the simpler form that simply labels states with words or visuals to reflect a trend.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 10.54.12 PM

The D3 JavaScript library likely represents the future of mainstream data visualization. Anyone with a command of programming fundamentals can use the library to create stunning, animated representations of custom data sets. Such animations now occur commonly in mainstream publications such as the New York Times. The D3 website contains over 200 examples with source code, which one can download and modify for personal use. The range of visualization formats is stunning, driving home the idea that a practically infinite series of graph types exists beyond the usual bar, line, and pie charts. Interactive animation allows the user to see relationships and themes within the data in a manner that goes far beyond static charts.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 2.47.50 PM


Word Clouds

Word clouds represent text information in a simple way, by having the word size reflect its frequency in a body of text. Its effect is very direct, albeit limited, as single words lose a lot of their meaning out of the context of phrases and paragraphs. The word clouds of all of the State of the Union addresses is an effective example of making themes in history visible through word clouds.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 10.44.17 PM

2013 State Of the Union Address, ABC News

Concept Maps

Concept mapping has been around for a long time but hit its peak with the use of Inspiration software. Learning specialists have advocated concept and mind mapping for years to allow students to visually organize concepts for pre-writing as well as conceptual understanding. When paired with high quality questions and feedback, concept and mind mapping can encourage critical thinking and direct study of the relationships among concepts in a topic.


Example concept map from

Earth and Space

I recently saw one of the old “Puget Sound From Space” posters hanging in a classroom.The qualification from space seems quaint now that our students can smoothly pinch and zoom satellite databases using their own phones and tablets. Thanks to Google Earth, perhaps we no longer consciously realize that most geographic and stellar imagery is a visual representation of satellite and telescope data. Radar and spectral data is combined with colorization to represent distant or very large objects as if we are viewing them with our eyes. We would also do well to remember that the objects we “see” are also only the mental representations of the patterns and qualities of light passing through our eyes and interpreted by our brains.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 10.52.51 PM


Dark Sky app updated

Dark Sky still gives a pacific northwesterner what he needs: expected rainfall for the next hour. The new update nudges the app in the direction of fully featured weather apps but with a design that Jay Z would love.

20140208-212852.jpg  20140208-212907.jpg  20140208-212928.jpg  20140208-212942.jpg  20140208-212954.jpg

Reflections on Computer Science

We at U Prep are partway through the redesign of the school’s computer science program, to reimagine it as the study of foundational principles of computational thinking, accessible to all students regardless of prior background, and inclusive of highly engaging specialities such as robotics and website development.

The full plan includes three computer science elective classes, the integration of computer science activities into required middle school classes, and advising student clubs in robotics and other technical pursuits. This way, we will give all students the opportunity to do computer science and also provide those interested in further study an array of engaging opportunities at more and less technical levels.

While we put the full plan into place, we decided to offer a computer science course to students this year, even though our new model was not yet fully developed. Student interest was very high, and teaching a class would give us first-hand experience with developing curricula around these new principles. We staffed the course by hiring a subject-matter expert to partner with me as the experienced teacher. At the same time, we began the search for a full-time computer science teacher for next year.

We designed the course to teach fundamental concepts in algorithmic processing and data structure design through programming activities, so that students would receive explicit instruction in foundational principles of computer science while also learning programming skills. Programming was the most common learning activity, and key concepts included use of functions to repeatedly perform tasks, thinking logically and sequentially, breaking a problem into smaller parts, and figuring out how to organize real world data into structured elements. We made explicit links between the problems students were solving and the underlying concepts and thinking skills that are used throughout computer science.

We wanted students to learn to program in an environment that they would be able to use subsequently in future courses and their personal pursuits, to mirror how computing is now used in all fields of study and professions. We chose JavaScript as the development language for several reasons. The web-based applications that students commonly use (e.g., Facebook, Google Drive), are written in JavaScript. Study of JavaScript helped demystify software development, as students recognized the input elements and output formats that they created. While not an entirely strict language, JavaScript has consistent enough structure and data typing that we could teach these principles perfectly well. The development environment (Komodo) is free and multi-platform, ensuring that students could develop using their own computers and continue to use what they learned after the course was complete. The output environment (Chrome web browser) is familiar, yet students gained a new level of understanding of web page structure and performance as they created website software and debugged it using Chrome’s developer tools.

Most class time was spent writing code to solve specific problems, small ones at first and larger ones later. Students analyzed grade level enrollments, Sounders FC player salaries, and animated bouncing balls and streaming bubbles. Each activity built up students’ understanding of programming constructs, input and output, functions, parameters, and return values, conditionals and loops, arrays and objects, speed and memory usage, and more.

Students completed both a substantial individual project and a self-designed group project. In each, we explored how to analyze a real-world problem and design a solution, how to create, test, and refine software, and how to bring a project to completion. The group project introduced new dynamics: how to share, divide, and reconcile project design and development tasks among team members, and how to use an online, collaborative development environment to work on a project within a team.

Students also completed an individual research activity, in which they found and interview a computer science professional and made a short presentation to their classmates. This helped broaden students’ concept of what it means to do computer science work. Not all interview subjects were software developers, and a number applied computer science to other fields. Students learned that computer science is useful in all pursuits.

Bubbles activity
Practice with arrays, objects, Canvas, loops, and functions

Seahawks’ Keys to Success Work in Schools, Too.

The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are known for their confidence, speed, and defense. They are also known for running the most innovative coaching program in the NFL. How radical are their techniques? Not very, if you are an educator. Many of the strategies that Seahawks coaches use to get the best from their players are generally practiced by good teachers.

Treat each player as an individual

Head coach Pete Carroll: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” This detailed ESPN Magazine article describes the many different ways that the Seahawks take care of their players, including individual “status profiles” and counselors who check in with players after a bad practice. Individualization recognizes that each person’s circumstance and pattern of strengths and weaknesses are unique.

The best schools are built around teacher-student relationships. Students are known as individuals, with their unique personalities, interests, and learning dispositions. Students feel valued because teachers know them well and follow their development through years of study. The smaller the school, the most personal this relationship can become. Student support services, through advisors, teachers, counselors, and learning resource specialists, provide a nurturing, personalized support structure for each student.

Allow players to be themselves

A number of the Seahawks players have strong personalities. Some previously toiled within a poor team climate or openly clashed with past coaches. Those players have thrived in the Seahawks’ supportive system. When Marshawn Lynch refused to speak with reporters, and Richard Sherman delivered his famous rant on national television, the Seahawks did not penalize them (as far as we know) but rather seized on the learning moment for the players. The Seahawks organization also did not rush to the defense of those players but rather allowed them to feel the consequences of their actions from the NFL and public opinion.

At the best schools, students feel able to fully be themselves within school. They don’t have to check part of their personality at the door or conform to a school’s social norms. The best schools enforce enough rules to provide structure and also leave plenty of space to students to express themselves. Some students express learning challenges in ways that might be mistaken for obstinance, laziness, or defiance. Skilled teachers cut to the heart of the issue instead of heavily penalizing the overt behavior.


Have Fun

Coach Pete Carroll is well known for showing “boyish” enthusiasm on the sidelines and in practice. He has also encouraged playful contests during practices, pick-up basketball games for his players, and has a DJ play music during practices. He makes training fun, as many good teachers make learning fun, because happy people tend to perform better. Positivity is also part of the plan. Carroll and the rest of the coaching staff recognize positive play and encourage players to think optimistically about their potential and future performance. The Seahawks play from a position of confidence and strength, not fear of consequences.

The best classrooms are energizing places of enthusiasm. Teachers share their own passion for the subject and for their students. They understand that the social environment of school is absolutely vital for kids, and that a positive, inclusive social climate can enhance, rather than inhibit learning.

Experiment and iterate

The Seahawks organization has been labeled “new age” for their integration of yoga and meditation into the practice routine. However, the most significant aspect of this for me is the habit of experimentation and iteration. The Seahawks are eager to give new techniques a legitimate chance, including yoga, nutrition, social events, counselors, and more.

Pete Carroll has refined his approach through the years. Remember that he started as an assistant NFL coach and was fired twice from head coach positions (Patriots, Jets). Carroll continued to develop the model while at USC and took four years to fully refine and implement it with the Seahawks before winning the championship this year. Throughout, he undoubtedly made countless small adjustments to the approach and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.

The best schools are constantly making small adjustments to their program to sustain excellence during rapidly changing times. All members of the community contribute ideas for iterative program improvement. Innovative schools learn by doing, trying new ideas and seeing how they go.

Celebrate success

Carroll is known for leaping into the air on the sidelines, hugging his players, and even jumping into practice himself. These unabashed celebrations of success fill his players with the confidence that the head coach believes in them and recognizes their accomplishments.

The entire Seattle community, perhaps the entire northwest region, has joined in the celebration. Huge numbers of Seahawks fans attended the game. Crowd noise gave the Seahawks something of a home field advantage during the big game. An estimated 500,000 people will descend on the celebration parade downtown today.

Community celebration is self-reinforcing. Healthy schools recognize moments of success through community celebration.

David Malan on Teaching Computer Science

Three of us from U Prep attended a talk by David Malan, noted Harvard computer science instructor, at the UW school of Computer Science and Engineering. Malan walked the audience through noteworthy insights gained from teaching one of Harvard’s most popular courses, CS 50. The course has received national attention for making computer science accessible to both computer science majors and non-majors.

The national story on Malan has emphasized his personal magnetism and engaging presentation style, but Malan took his talk in a completely different direction. He presented a systems analysis of the course, students, and content, emphasizing the structural conditions that the teaching team has designed to support student success. Malan hardly mentioned his distinctive lecture style at all, instead noting that the team has reduced weekly lecture time in the course. Anyhow, only 70% of the students watch the lectures, increasingly on video as the term progresses. The core of the class, Malan states, is student work on authentic problems.

The keys to CS 50′s success, according to Malan, are the huge team of teaching fellows and alumni who provide small group and individual instruction, the focus on “memorable moments” during lectures, and the two capstone events that ground project development within a highly social, memorable context. The course provide 100 Teaching Fellows for a student enrollment of 700, and course alumni volunteer further support. Most students spent 10-20 hours per week working on the course, and a small number fall outside of that range, above or below.

Malan believes in mental reference models for concepts in computer science. At the start of the course, students build programs using Scratch (I thought that was for fourth graders!), providing a visual reference point for later programming in code. Lectures include kinesthetic demonstrations, during which students stand on stage and represent such concepts as bits in a byte or iterations of a binary search.

Later in the course, assigned problems become more challenging and complex, allowing students to engage with them at their level of mastery. Cryptography, digital forensics, spellcheck, breakout, a stock trading game, and a virtual drive through campus stretch students’ skills and knowledge. All this in a single semester course? No wonder students do so much work each week.

Malan underscored what we have also found the most interesting challenge in teaching computer science: how to engage and effectively teach students with novice, moderate, and significant experience in the field. Computer science is based on abstract principles of logical and sequential reasoning. These can pose a significant challenge to new students in the field, and yet tracking alone only serves to reinforce perceptions that only a small number of people can master computer science. We are working hard to develop the teaching techniques to make computer science accessible, relevant, and understandable to all, since computer science is now important and useful in all fields of study.

Singing With Gusto

My high school choral director also coached the school’s varsity football team. This did not end up how you might think. Jiman Duncan was highly qualified for both pursuits, and both groups thrived. The football team won all but one game that year, including the league championship. The chorus and a cappella groups experienced a revival, performing a broad repertoire, and as you might imagine, singing with gusto. We were coached to sing physically, boldly, and with confidence, a great step in the development of our personalities and self-esteem. We went sharp every time, sometimes by huge margins, but that just added an amusing coda to each piece.

Mr. Duncan took us everywhere. We performed at schools, in retirement homes, in shopping centers, anywhere that welcomed our sea shanties, classical pieces, and Beach Boys tunes. One day, Mr. Duncan announced that we were heading to Alabama for spring break. From Massachusetts to Alabama? This was about as foreign a destination as possible while remaining within the 48 continental states. To Tuscaloosa we went, to a memorable week of humid weather, more retirement homes and schools, and fleeting adventures with our peer hosts.

Mr. Duncan cast a formidable figure, cut for both opera and linebacker, or so my memory suggests. Yet he consistently projected positive energy and confidence in his charges. One week, he took our music class to the Boston Symphony Hall to hear the BSO. While we students sat in the back, Jiman waited in line for a subscriber’s returned ticket, and ended up sitting in the very front row of the balcony, conspicuous to all. The instant the last note sounded, he leaped to his feet and shouted, “Bravo!” before a single other pair of hands even clapped. I admired the audacity, passion for the music, and appreciation of the performers expressed within this split second. I wonder whether he was solely experiencing a personal moment, or whether the act was partly for our benefit.

That was in 1986. This year, I was invited to sing in a choral group for the first time in 27 years. Our music directors decided to assemble a faculty/staff choir to perform Handel’s Messiah with the student orchestra. It was most definitely small and informal, a collection of our teachers and staff who were willing to devote a few lunch periods to rehearsal. It was extremely refreshing to take time away from curriculum and professional development to sing. I also imagine that students were a little surprised at the faces in the choir, as we adults are typecast by our jobs. “I didn’t know they could sing!”

Singing in the faculty-staff choir brought back many memories of singing in high school. I wondered where Mr. Duncan was now, and whether he might appreciate a brief note of thanks and memory. Google delivered the sad news. Jiman Duncan passed away in 2003, at the age of 58. According to Bangor Daily News, he died of prostate cancer. I also found out (I’m sure I forgot) that Jiman had a degree in theology in addition to his choral and sporting skills. The web search also turned up a colorful account of rehearsal with the colorful Mr. Duncan, part of the author’s journey into spiritual life. Finally, a Rutland, Vermont events calendar lists Jiman Duncan  as the 1973 conductor of (yes, you guessed it) Handel’s Messiah. I cannot thank Mr. Duncan personally, but I will add to his public memory on the web.

Faculty Professional Development Days

Each year, U Prep devotes a number of full or half in-service days to professional development to support continuous improvement of teaching practices in our faculty. These full-faculty workshops complement the individual and group professional development that the school also supports. We have held two of these in-service half days so far this year. What did the faculty do when school was dismissed early?

October: Differentiated Instruction and Technology

Differentiated instruction is the practice of varying teaching content and methods so that students are appropriately challenged and significantly learning every day. The opposite of “one size fits all,” differentiated instruction assumes that students have varying learning needs and therefore should receive varied instruction. Teachers design learning environments to appropriately engage and challenge all students, based on their facility and interests.

Differentiated instruction methods include: providing students with activity choices; asking students to work at their own pace; giving students a variety of presentation format options; providing material to students in different forms of media; assigning open-ended projects and individualizing feedback.

Dr. Jane Cutter, U Prep’s Learning Resources Coordinator, notes that many teaching techniques originally designed as learning accommodations are also effective with our entire student population. Scholars Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon note that instruction can be differentiated through content (the information provided to students), process (learning activities), product (how students demonstrate mastery), and environment (resources and classroom setup).

Technology is a powerful tool to facilitate all of these forms of differentiation. Teachers can quickly provide varied materials through Schoology, individually communicate with students at any time, and link students to a variety of online activities and media. Students can organize their own work environment, collaborate with classmates, and demonstrate learning through a variety of means.

During this workshop, teachers attended a joint session together and then participated in one of five, topical breakout sessions. Sybille Stadtmueller, Meg Shortell, Karen Slon, Brad Gosche, Yayoi Brown, Moses Rifkin, and Alec Duxbury shared examples of differentiation from their work and facilitated the sessions. Teachers explored the connection of differentiation to assessment, creative work, and student voice.

Further reading: (Carol Ann Tomlinson interview in Education Week)

November: Attention, Mindfulness, and Technology

U Prep has worked hard over the past years to keep pace with rapid technological changes occurring in society. The main event has been a huge infusion of tablet and laptop devices that we have placed in students’ hands, plus consideration of how to change our instructional practices to take advantage of the devices’ many capabilities.

At the same time, we feel equally strongly about the importance of balance in our lives. Balance between high-tech and low-tech learning environments; balance between email and face-to-face communication; balance between productivity and reflective practice.

In one of the faculty’s summer readings, William Powers wrote:

We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word, depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.

Even in a hyper-connected world, everyone has the ability to regulate his or her own experience. It’s the same theme that great thinkers have struck time after time over the last two thousand years, but it keeps getting forgotten. The answer to our dilemma is hiding in the last place we tend to look: our own minds. The best tool for fighting back is still the mind itself.

With this introduction, the faculty considered five current approaches to attention and mindfulness in a technology-rich world.

Executive Function: neurobiology, memory, and learning

Mindfulness: contemplation and quality of life

Engagement: project-based learning and progressive education

Mastery: getting control of technology by getting better at it

Social media: what students are doing behind those screens

David Levy, Professor of Information Sciences at the University of Washington, facilitated on of the sessions. Megan Reimann, parent and special education expert, facilitated another. Many thanks to both.

Further watching: (Prof. David Levy on information overload)

More Professional Development Coming Later This Year

February: project-based learning with technology

March: cultural competency in a diverse community

April: a model for technology lesson planning

Seeking Computer Science Teacher for 2014-15

Our new, innovative computer science program emphasizes high student engagement, accessibility to all students, and opportunities for advanced study. University Prep is a grades 6-12 independent school in Seattle, WA. I am happy to answer your questions about the position.

Computer Science Teacher
Full-time, academic year position
Starts August 2014

University Prep seeks an innovative computer science teacher to deliver a program of study in grades 6-12, including three levels of computer science classes, supporting instruction for computational thinking across the curriculum, and advising student clubs. This is a new position, part of a school initiative to increase emphasis on computer science in the program and meet rapidly growing student interest in the subject.

Candidates must possess demonstrated competence and experience in the content area and pedagogy. A master’s degree or equivalent experience in computer science and recent successful teaching experience are desired. An understanding of new perspectives on teaching computer science will be helpful. Successful candidates will have the flexibility, energy, enthusiasm, high expectations, and understanding of the developmental needs of 6th – 12th grade students.

University Prep is committed to the diversity of its workplace and to making computer science accessible to all students.

Reports to:
Director of the Upper School

Teach one Middle School and two Upper School elective courses in computer science, with the goals of high engagement, broad accessibility, and opportunities for advanced study.

Collaborate with Middle School teachers in other disciplines (currently math and science) to integrate computer science and computational thinking activities into these required courses.

Support student-led clubs in applied computing fields. These vary from year to year based on student initiative and may include robotics, engineering, 3D printing, programming, and app design.

Articulate and refine the vision for broadly inclusive, authentic instruction in computer science at U Prep. In collaboration with the academic dean, division directors, and academic technology director, develop future strategic directions for the computer science program, including consideration of a U Prep graduation requirement in computer science.

Describe the computer science program to current and prospective students, families, and peers at other educational institutions. Actively network with local and national organizations, such as the UW Computer Science Department and Puget Sound CSTA, to enrich and share U Prep’s work in computer science

Other duties as assigned

If you are interested in applying for this position, please send your résumé to Debbie Playter at

No phone calls or drop-ins, please!