ARIE in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Friday, February 17, 2017 to Sunday early morning, February 19, 2017:


Friday afternoon, February 17, Stephanie Ehler and I flew out of the Austin Bergstrom Airport and started our long trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan via Washington, D.C. and Frankfurt, Germany.  At each stopover, we were lucky enough to have just enough time to reach our next gate for the next  boarding.  I spent most of the flights unconscious.  At one point I fell asleep before we were allowed to adjust our seat backs and Ehler watched me sleep with my head lolling forwards and backwards.  She adjusted my seat for me when this was allowed and I had no idea until she told me.  During my few hours of consciousness, I outlined the DCTM manual on STAAR testing and read a few chapters in a brand new book from Summer, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.  This book seemed really appropriate for my trip towards a country in the middle of a very cold, snowy winter.


We finally arrived in Almaty between 2 and 3 am Sunday morning, February 19.  We passed through Customs and found our luggage with no problems.  A driver met us and drove us to our hotel.  I was very happy to find that our hotel, the Sherapark Inn was very clean, comfortable and fancy.  Nearly all the people working in the hotel’s guest services looked Asian, but spoke Russian.  That combined with the way my key turned on the power in my hotel room made me feel like I was in a cold, Eastern European version of China.  Due to all my sleep on the planes, I was only able to sleep a couple hours before our lunch meeting with our hosts at 1 pm later that day.  During the hours I was awake, I drafted this blog article.


Sunday, February 20, 2017


At 1 pm, we met our main hostess, Tánia, and our driver in the hotel lobby.  They drove us to a sky resort within the Mahalangur Range.  This mountain range is famous due to Mount Everest.  On the way to the resort, we learned a little about Tánia’s school.  It is a private secondary pilot STEM school that will serve approximately 100 students when it opens.  When we arrived at the resort, we look a sky lift up the mountain and met with our translators, Arái and Ardák, at a nice restaurant decorated like a wooden hunter’s lodge.


At the restaurant, Stephanie and I tasted horse meat for the first time.  It was part of a delicious salad we ate at the start of a large lunch.  We also drank hot expresso and thyme and ginger tea.  These beverages were so soothing up on the cold cold mountain.  We ate a delicious cheese-filled flatbread and also another good dish with lamb, sauce, and plain flatbread.  Unfortunately, our inner fat kids, Kimmie and Sheila, were not up to the task of making significant progress in all our lunch courses.  We ate until we were stuffed and there was still plenty of food left.


While eating, we got to know a little about Tánia, Ardák, and Arái.  Our translators are cousins who grew up in Almaty and who speak very good English due to schooling abroad in Switzerland and Vancouver, Canada.  Both looked Asian adding to my sense of being in a cold Russian version of China.



After our lunch, we went for a short, brisk walk around the resort.  It was cool to be surrounded by so many skiers.  If the slopes didn’t all look like black diamonds and if it hadn’t been about 20 years since I’d last skiied, I’d be tempted to try again.


We took the ski lift down with our hostesses and then drove back to the hotel.  I was so jetlagged and full that I was passed out for nearly the whole car trip back to the hotel.


Back at the hotel, Stephanie and I rested before meeting again to plan Day 1 of the ARIE training.  During my rest time, I did some physics problems for fun from Shaum’s Outlines in College Physics.  I also finished drafting this blog article.


To prep for our work meeting, Stephanie ordered room service like a boss.  She ordered fruit, mushroom soup and a fancy ham and cheese sandwich with fries.  The cream of mushroom soup was outstanding!  She went all out on the room service because the exchange rate made all the food very reasonably priced.  After eating, we looked over our Day 1 visuals and planned who would lead each session: we scheduled Stephanie to lead the Project Launch while I would lead the Project Ideation session.  After we settled this, I spent some time in her room grading and publishing this blog article because her internet was working faster than in my room.


When I returned to my room, I found out that the internet still worked well, so I finished grading all my students’ grant proposals.  I had to leave fairly detailed comments because I will not be able to give them in person feedback prior to the end of the trimester due to this trip.  I updated the linked rubric chart above so that students could visually see what rubric parts they earned full (green square) and partial (yellow square) credit.  Later I will copy paste the scores hidden behind these squares via Conditional Formatting into companion score sheets in order to generate my students’ project grades.


Monday, February 20, 2017 – Day 1, ARIE Almaty Training (Project Launch & Project Ideation)
We opened Day 1 of the ARIE Almaty training by facilitating a compass icebreaker activity.  Participants divided themselves into 4 groups: North (risk taking people of action), South (compassionate includers), East (big picture people), and West (color-coded detailed people).  Each group discussed their personality type’s strengths and challenges.  We discussed the importance of recognizing other people’s differences and how these can be leveraged to strengthen teams.  Early on they recognized the benefits of having teams composed of a variety of compass points.  We suggested that they facilitate similar teambuilding activities with their students in the future to guide them to similar realizations about teamwork.


After this ice breaker, Stephanie facilitated a Project Launch session.  She introduced the driving question and asked teams to read over the project challenge rubric carefully.  Then the participants divided into into small teams and started compiling their Knows and Need-to-Knows based on the driving question and the rubric.


The teams came up with fairly detailed lists of Knows and Need-to-Knows.  It was clear that they had already started reading about project-based learning (PBL) because their Knows column included things such as: the 6 A’s, 21st century skills, scaffolding, creativity, and team work.  They had a wide variety of Need-to-Knows that included questions about: student engagement, entry event organization, project calendaring, assessments, selection of project themes & topics, 21st century skills, mixing PBL with traditional teaching, appropriate levels of content, and peer assessments.  I tried an experiment and placed a symbol that looked like a red paperclip next to items that would be addressed in the session following Project Launch, Project Ideation.


After lunch, we started a session on Project Ideation.  All teams worked very hard during the work sessions built into this interactive workshop.  During these sessions, participants selected their standards, brainstormed project roles, contexts, products, and audiences, and drafted driving questions. At the end of Day 1, participants gave each other Critical Friends feedback (I Likes, I Wonders, and Next Steps) on sticky notes.


Then they updated their Knows and Need-to-Knows to include their new learnings and new questions after one day of training.  We pointed out that the items labeled with a red paperclip symbol were items we hoped to get to in the Ideation session.  Several participants indicated that they had learned things related to these items by crossing these out and updating their Knows lists with related items.  Some participants came to us with follow-up questions relating to the red-paperclip items that were only lightly touched during the Ideation session.  I liked how the paper clips held me and Stephanie accountable to our session goals.  They also helped us to make early course corrections when participants helped us realize when we hadn’t communicated as clearly as we had intended.



Tuesday, February 22, 2017 – Day 2, ARIE Almaty Training (Rubrics, Calendaring Scaffolding & Assessments)

We opened Day 2 with a hands-on activity intended to show participants the value of rubrics.  The participants divided into teams and created marshmallow houses.  Nearly all the houses included walls and rooms made of additional materials not supplied by us. I’d never seen ARIE participants add so many extra materials to their houses.  I wonder if the cold climate in Almaty made them treat the house walls and roofs as essential items.  Several minutes into the building session, Stephanie secretly took aside a couple participants and handed them a rubric to guide the building of their product.  Their responses to this new tool were mixed.  Some felt that this new assessment stifled their creativity.  Nonetheless, they played along.


After the building time, the teams tried to assign grades to each other’s houses.  During these grading sessions, some of the non-rubric teams discovered the rubrics that they didn’t have.  Following the feedback sessions, we held a full group discussion about how rubrics can serve as tools for students and for teachers.  The participants were quick to point out how rubrics could add consistency and remove subjectivity from grading products.  They also noticed that the rubrics sometimes stifled student creativity and wondered whether it might be worthwhile to withhold the rubric from students until after the early brainstorming phases of the project.


Following this activity, we facilitated a session on how to create Rubrics.  Once again, our participants applied the knowledge in the workshop with a lot of focus and work ethic.  By lunch time, every team had fairly detailed rubrics that included several rows of rubric criteria aligned to several different learning objectives / standards.



After lunch, we facilitated a session on how to integrate assessments and scaffolding into project calendars.  After the participants had used their work time to build a project calendar, we ran an activity to get them up and moving again.  The participants, organized in 3 teams, competed in a game called, Don’t Blow the Kings.  Their team’s mission was to blow all the cards off their tables except for the 4 king cards.  After the activity, we shared observations related to each team’s collaboration strategies and discussed how these connected to challenges and strategies used by typical PBL teams.  We closed the day by letting participants update their Knows and Need-to-Knows.  Once we again, we held ourselves accountable by labeling items related to calendaring, scaffolding, assessments and rubrics with a paperclip symbol.  The follow-up discussions around these labeled items helped us to wrap up the day by sharing more strategies and clarifying key points with participants.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017 – Day 3, ARIE Almaty Training (Entry Events, Project Management, Work Time)


In the morning of Day 3, we covered different types of entry events.  Then we gave participants time to outline their entry events.  Prior to lunch, we ran a casual version of Critical Friends to provide participants with feedback on their entry events.  In the afternoon of Day 3, we facilitated a beta version of our brand new, revamped Project Management session.  In the new session, the students explore resources related to 4 aspects of project management: agency, collaboration, inquiry and personalization.  These 4 were selected because improving students’ levels of agency and collaboration makes them more effective at completing projects.  Improving the levels of inquiry and personalization in projects makes students more motivated to complete projects.  Building systems that improve student efficacy and motivation leads to projects with more student engagement.  In the future, we will expand on this beta version of Project Management 2.0 by adding more resources to each station and by creating passport stations that enable facilitators to hold small group workshops on each aspect of project management.


Thursday, February 23, 2017 – Day 4, ARIE Almaty Training (Critical Friends, Open Q & A Sessions)


During the early morning and early afternoon of Day 4, we held formal Critical Friends sessions to provide participants with feedback on their projects as a whole.  Stephanie acted as facilitator and I was the timekeeper.  In these sessions, we held them to a strict version of the protocol so we could limit the lengths of the sessions and prevent them from becoming defensive trial-like sessions.  The participants as a whole presented a wide range of very creative projects that spanned many disciplines.  Some of their project products included: investment portfolios, shadow plays, budgeting apps, mineral maps of Kazakhstan, fountains, startup business products, and books about traditional Kazakh games.



Following the Cortical Friends sessions, we held an open Q & A session with the participants.  Because the staff are highly involved in the design of their school they asked a broad variety of questions that included questions about PBL and about school design and logistics in general.  At the close of this session, our gracious hosts surprised us with many Thank You presents.  They were each very beautiful and thoughtful.  They gave us beautiful flash drives and journals covered with traditional Kazakh designs.  They gave us really neat paper weights that were apples made of a onyx.  They also got us poster renderings of some of Saulé’s artwork.  My piece of art was a collage that compared a famous rendering of a Kazakh tribeswoman with a painting by Vermeer.  Vermeer is one of my favorite artists so this gift was uniquely apropo to my art tastes.


Amazing Almaty Highlights:


Throughout the training days, Tánia thoughtfully provided us with many opportunities to visit beautiful tourist attractions in Almaty.  She arranged for us to eat at great restaurants for many of our lunches and dinners. Every meal we ate was delicious.  We enjoyed horse meat more than we expected.  We got to taste horsemeat that was grilled, boiled, and in sausage form.  All forms were very tasty.



On our last day in Almaty, she arranged for us to take a walking tour of the city with an American ex-pat named Dennis who is the author of the Walking Almaty blog.  Dennis took us to the most famous Orthodox church in the city that is inside the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen.  He took us inside the church and explained its history and details about its construction.  Then we walked with him to the Green Bazaar and tasted Kazakh snacks: dried apricots, almonds, cheese, and camel’s milk.  We ended the tour by shopping for souvenirs in a shop connected to a famous chocolate factory.



Overall, this trip was very beautiful.  It was filled with many happy memories of working hard and playing hard.  We are grateful for all the hard work of our wonderful hostess, Tánia, and her amazing cohort of teachers and university partners.



Post-Script: Hello, my name is Stevie


Throughout the trip, I was seriously jet-lagged.  On the night, we revamped the Project Management session, Stephanie caught me typing with my eyes closed while bobbing my head wildly about like Stevie Wonder.  She dubbed the sleepy, semi-productive version of myself, Stevie.  In nearly every car ride, Stevie took over and I passed out between all our beautiful Almaty destinations.  Here’s a picture of Stevie in action.


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