Service Learning (Part 3): Flood and Disaster Relief

This afternoon I Googled images of the 2011 floods in Queensland. I was living in Hong Kong at the time but many Australian readers will vividly remember the hardship endured by those who were uprooted from homes and lost their businesses. I lived in Oregon in 1997 when similar flooding happened in the Willamette Valley.

In Nepal, floods are often a reality multiple times per year. Resident live in houses of mud and straw situated between two rivers. They are unable to relocate because they must live close to the land they are tending. Floods worsen in the valleys as the glaciers in the mountains melt at ever-increasing rates and trees are cut to make room for more cultivation. A woman of 108 years told us that her village has relocated six times in her lifetime. She remembers the land as dense forest with wild elephants, monkeys, and tigers.

When sharing about their situations and their plans for the future, the community circled houses that were most vulnerable for flooding.

When sharing about their situations and their plans for the future, the community circled houses that were most vulnerable for flooding.

Continual flooding and other natural disasters such as earthquakes contribute the cycle of poverty.

“We don’t sleep for three months,” one man told us. “When the rains begin, we must stay awake so that we can get the elderly, the lactating mothers, and the children to a safe place.”

During the rainy season, pregnant women in need of medical care will brave their way across flooded rivers. Many die.

While waters are high, children are unable to go to get to school. They often miss five consecutive months of school, losing much of their previous learning.

Our leader Vicki, speaking with 108-year-old Anjuli about the history of her village.

Our leader Vicki, speaking with 108-year-old Anjuli about the history of her village.

In villages of semi-bonded labourers, villagers are paid little money and are instead paid in food rations. Regardless of natural disasters, landowners require a certain level of production. If those production levels are not met, workers are not given enough food to sustain their families…and the bondage of poverty continues.

Disaster Relief is only the Beginning

How can a community break out of this cycle of poverty? A number of things need to happen over a two- to three-year period:

  • means of transportation to come and go from the community, even during times of flood, especially for medical needs and schooling
  • early warning systems put in place
  • community coalitions are formed with plans and procedures during the rainy season
  • infrastructure or temporary shelters for the elderly, pregnant/lactating women, and children.
  • systems of advocacy for better wages

Villages in Transition

We visited villages that have gone from the hopeless cycle of poverty to self-sufficiency.

Early warning systems were put into place so that, when water reached a certain level, the community put their emergency plan into action.

Sandbags were provided and the community learned to reinforce river banks with bamboo. This community also received small rowboats so that they could get community members and supplies to and from flooded areas, should necessities arise.

Bamboo is often use to reinforce river banks.

Bamboo is often use to reinforce river banks.

A happy girl sits atop sandbags that protect her house.

A happy girl sits atop sandbags that protect her house.

Again, the people of Nepal listed their needs and put the solutions into place. Lutheran World Federation simply provided the materials and education they needed to get started.

Should you have a passion for helping people end the cycle of poverty, you can earmark funds toward that effort. Tax deductable donations can be made online or sent to

Australia Lutheran World Service
PO Box 488
Albury NSW 2640

Classrooms might want to purchase specific items like goat, piglet, pushcarts, or more (all who receive the gifts are educated to use them as part of their sustainability empowerment). They can do that by making a Gift of Grace.

They also currently have a way to give for emergency relief efforts in the fight against Ebola. You can donate online.

Service Learning (Part 2)

A few weeks ago I spoke about a service trip I was taking to Nepal. A learning question we grappled with throughout the trip was What is poverty?

‘Poverty’ is usually used in terms of finances, but there are other types of poverty as well. In the middle-class developed world we most often encounter emotional and spiritual poverty, although we are aware of those who face homelessness and receive government support to purchase food.

But what if financial poverty is coupled with social/emotional poverty and governmental support does not exist?

Physical Disabilities in Rural Nepal

Some of the first people we met in Western Nepal were socially impoverished from birth through no fault of their own. They were born with physical disabilities. In rural Nepal many still subscribe to the superstition that a person is born disabled as a result of behaviours, or karma, from past lives.

The ‘logic’ then extends to a belief that if a person’s disability was karma, he or she has no place in the community. Without a place in an impoverished community, a person is thrust into a life-threatening situation.

Fewer than six months ago, a group of physically disabled people in Western Nepal were given the opportunity to go into business for themselves. Lutheran World Federation found the building and helped finance the supplies that have helped some people with disabilities begin to make a living for their families.

The image below most likely doesn’t fit your initial mental image of a ‘factory’ (it didn’t fit mine!). Yet it gives the people a place of their own to meet and to work.


Aadesh, pictured below, manages the current factory. Aadesh is visually impaired. On a daily basis, he helps back the candles into plastic. He also has a keen business mind and is establishing a consistent local market.



Those in the factory have a long-term business plan that they were proud to share with us. Through the translators at Lutheran World Federation, we learned that the business plan includes the following goals:

  • continue to increase the numbers of employees to better meet the current demand for the product
  • continue to increase their product and income
  • increase their market through the use of media
  • aid others with disabilities who are not currently able to work in a factory such as theirs. This may mean better factory working conditions that will allow for workers with a greater range of disabilities
  • save for more permanent work facilities

Decisions are made by the group of workers who keeps meticulous records of income and expenses. Their plans and accomplishments are shared with Lutheran World Federation and Lutheran World Federation plans to help them expand.







Beyond the income the workers earn through the business, Aadesh and the others have established a respected place in their local community. Those who formerly held superstitious beliefs see the workers as capable and valuable members of society. They see the local economy growing because of their work.

In the future, Lutheran World Federation will help these factory owners organise as human rights defenders. In that capacity, they can show people with disabilities who reside in other communities that they also have a valuable place in the community.


Abyaha, pictured to the left, is a sharp business woman from Eastern Nepal who has started her own small shop. She contracted polio at an early age and was shunned by the community. When her parents passed away, she was left on her own with no friends and no community support.

She now has a prominent place in the community as a local business owner.

Quick Progress

Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has only been working with people with disabilities for three years.

During that time, the government has made some provisions for people with disabilities at a policy level.  LWF now helps ensure that those with disabilities claim their rights and receive the provisions allowed by the law.

Escape from Poverty

In the developing world, poverty is a cycle of bondage. Without a small infusion of capital, the initial advocacy, and personal empowerment, the cycle of poverty continues. It is an honour to be associated with a group that helps people establish sustainable businesses, establish a respected place in the community and be empowered to self-advocate.

Should you have a passion for helping people with disabilities, you can earmark funds toward that effort. Donations can be made to

Australia Lutheran World Service
PO Box 488
Albury NSW 2640

Classrooms might want to purchase specific items like goat, piglet, pushcarts, or more (all who receive the gifts are educated to use them as part of their sustainability empowerment). They can do that by making a Gift of Grace.

They also currently have a way to give for emergency relief efforts in the fight against Ebola. You can donate online.

Service Learning: Nepal (Part 1)

IMG_7031Looking back at my posts on this site, I realise I’ve neglected a big part of my life as an expat educator: Service Learning.

I am currently in Kathmandu, Nepal with a wonderful group of teachers. Our tour was organised by the Australia Lutheran World Service (ALWS). We’re not building houses or teaching English or provide medical services. Our objective is to learn more about and later help build support for the development of rural villages in Nepal.

I have come to understand that service learning can take many different forms. Marty Schmidt from Hong Kong International School helped me understand that service learning can be Service learning (heavy on the service), service Learning (heavy on the learning), and Service Learning (a focus on both).

This trip is more service Learning. In preparation for the trip, we read about the current issues in Nepal, better understanding the economic, cultural, political, and religious complexities surrounding current realities.


The readings are sobering, but also give some insight into the few choices available to those in rural villages worldwide and ways those in poverty are exploited.

Little Princes documents the story of children exploited during the Nepal Civil War. Parents, wanting the best for their children, trusted men who told them that their children could be kept safe and receive an education in Kathmandu. The parents paid a sum of money, the men took the children and proceeded to sell them into various forms of slavery. More than a few Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) have taken up the cause to help children separated from their parents.

Ishwori tells the story of a girl with impaired vision who is marginalised due to the superstitions surrounding physical disabilities. Her husband goes off to work overseas and, while there, marries another woman. When he returns to Nepal, he disowns his wife, the village rejects her, and she moves to Kathmandu to find work. Her young daughter finds work in a cafe that is a front for prostitution.

Trip Objectives

ALWS endeavors to help develop rural villages and empower people in those rural areas. We will visit villages in the West that have received support for infrastructure and education. Then, we will visit places in the East where development has only begun. We will talk to people whose lives have been affected by the infusion of and/or promise of infrastructure.

We do not give money directly to the people. We have brought some gifts that will be dispersed by the local aid workers at their discretion. Our objective is to share the stories with you, with churches, and with schools.

My hope is that telling the stories will inspire you to get involved in some form of service learning either locally or overseas.

First Days

As with most service trips, there is some sightseeing involved. We arrived yesterday and were familiarised with some of the rules and expectations of the trip. We also had some time to wander locally.

Our group is diverse. A few have traveled but most have not ventured into developing countries. I enjoy listening to their first impressions, remembering the assault on the senses and the fear of the unknown.

So far, Nepal is more similar to India than China. The vast majority of the people of Kathmandu are Hindu. Many Tibetans have found refuge in Nepal. Our tour guide said that many Muslims are now fleeing their homes and finding safety in Nepal.

The online connection is dodgy, even in the Kathmandu hotel. I’ll check in when I can. I’d be interested to hear your experiences with service learning.

Public Service reminder painted on a wall at the side of the road in Kathmandu.

Public Service reminder painted on a wall at the side of the road in Kathmandu.

What does ‘Mastery’ Mean? Gumby vs. Weeble Learning in Mathematics

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If you’re a Gen-X teacher, perhaps you remember a childhood where you played with Weebles and Gumby.

Weebles had a weighted bottom so that, no matter how long you held their heads to the ground, they always popped back up to their original positions. Gumby, on the other hand, was flexible, adapting to any imaginary setting in which he was placed.

I’ve been thinking about ‘Mastery Learning’ as I read The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way  and comb through back issues of Educational Leadership. I realise that I was a compliant student who learned to perform tasks but not master material. I engaged in Weeble Learning rather than Gumby Learning.

Weeble Learning

I grew up as a Weeble learner of mathematics. I memorised the multiplication tables. Having some strange, innate desire to please my teachers and parents, I practiced pages of arithmetic facts, pushing myself for better speed and mastery of tables and algorithms. If we played “Around the World” games whereby I could compete against others in speed and accuracy of maths facts, I rocked.

When I got to worded problems, I hunted for the numbers and for little word clues that helped me decide whether to add, subtract, multiply or divide. Geometry involved memorising a formula into which numbers would go that I would again add, subtract, multiply, or divide. In High School, I looked for every formula in the chapter and figured out which one would best fit the numerals in the paragraph.

I didn’t realise that maths involved more than the four basic operations. Like a Weeble that can only tip and then return upright to the same position, maths problems could only be tackled with the four basic operations.

If my teachers had asked me about my strategies, I would have said ‘Guess and Check’. I guessed which operation was the correct one and checked to see whether or not the teacher marked it wrong.

Gumby Learning

Had I been less of a Weeble and more of a Gumby, I would have realised that there were multiple ways to tackle a mathematical problem and prove (to myself!) that answers were correct.

Had I been a Gumby mathematician, I would have been able to think of addition flexibly. I’d have realised that addition sometimes involved putting a whole bunch of things into one pile and sometimes related to jumping distances, comparing bars on a graph, or measuring perimeter. Multiplication might have been columns and rows or groups of items. I would connect factors and multiples in order to determine divisibility.

In the December/January issue of Educational LeadershipGrant Wiggins proposed the following definition of Mastery:

[The] effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject.

Wiggins’ definition aligned with Amanda Ripley’s use of the word ‘mastery’ in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Ripley’s description of schools both in Finland and Poland was that “Schools existed to help students master complex academic material” [emphasis mine].

I have come to believe that rigour is the insistence that students be able to use both knowledge and skilils fluently, flexibly and creatively in the context of complex academic material.

Gumby mathematicians can solve ‘standardised test-type’ maths problems and open-ended maths problems because they have the flexibility to think beyond the basic four operations and beyond formulas. They mentally recognise that the difference between 1000 and 995 is 5 without having to write the numbers down and ‘borrow’. They are not flustered when faced with problems such as this one (from Math Olympiads, December 2005):

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They are motivated by authentic tasks such as those listed in Victoria Teacher Resources for Assessing Multiplicative Thinking.

So how is your maths teaching? Do your choices of instruction materials, methods and assessments develop Weeble mathematicians or Gumby mathematicians? What is your evidence?


What Worked and What Fizzled in 2013 #SAVMP

Public domain: No copyright

Public domain: No copyright

I’m doing a big of catch-up. I signed up for a Virtual Admin Mentor Program (#SAVMP)  – one challenge per week that began in August.

The Week 3 challenge asks me to address important thoughts I had starting at a new school in my new role. Seems like a good end-of-year-reflection – especially since the end of each school year is also the end of the calendar year.

What has been successful?

Documentation. I was better at keeping student behavioural notes as an administrator than I was as a classroom teacher.

One of my first welcome gifts was a small prayer diary. I used the diary to note down every important outgoing and incoming phone call, especially those from parents. I made notes about significant conversations I had with teachers. The notes were brief and messy – I’m pretty sure no one else would be able to make sense of them. But I remembered the instances. And I prayed about many of the instances.

When I started having multiple entries on the same student, I would start a Word document. The document included only facts – who said what, places where incidents happened, interventions and results.

The diary notes and documents helped me better identify patterns, frequencies, and levels of success with interventions. What have we tried? What have we not tried? What has worked? What are possible next steps?

I also have data that I will use as a baseline for 2014 and beyond. This next year, the school is focusing on creating a culture based on the philosophies of Positive Education and Restorative Justice. As I continue to document in 2014, I can see whether or not the cultural shift is affecting the frequency and intensity of particular student behaviours.

What didn’t work?

I know some teachers at my school read this blog. It would probably be best to ask them (feel free to leave a comment – I can take it).

In Term 2, I introduced professional readings into the Junior School meetings. Teachers could choose to read from a selection of professional articles or books. Some were related to teaching students with autism. Others focused on reading books on second language acquisition. Still others read the Daily 5, The (Second Edition): Fostering Literacy in the Elementary Grades
or Launch an Intermediate Writing Workshop: Getting Started with Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5.

The first week, teachers had 30 minutes to do the reading and 30 minutes to discuss. Discussions were focused around the following protocols:

  • What did the article/chapter say?
  • What were you thinking as you read?
  • What questions did it raise?
  • What does this mean for your classroom?

Two other weeks, teachers were expected to do the readings in advance of the meetings. I noticed the discussions weren’t as rich those weeks. On the one hand, I was disappointed. On the other hand, I remembered that we communicate the importance of things by the time we set aside for them. If I believed the reading was truly important, I had a responsibility to set time aside for the reading as much as the discussion.

Both reading and discussion time got lost in Term 3 due to the implementation of a school-wide assessment goal. I planned to resurrect the readings in Term 4. Then I broke my leg. Best laid plans…

The professional readings-as-part-of-meetings fizzled. But it wasn’t a total loss. Teachers began sharing other books that they were reading. One teacher became hugely passionate about Writing Workshop and gathered a host of new resources to share with me. Another teacher started asking for links to tech blogs. Still another team implemented the Daily 5, adapting it to fit the needs and constraints of their open classroom.

In 2014, I’ll get feedback from teachers on how the process worked and ask for suggestions on ways we can continue to grow a culture that regularly reads professional literature.