Reflecting on 2009

Reflecting on 2009

Kenyan teachers at TWBC Workshops in Mbita Kenya (credit: Sharon Peters)

Kenyan teachers at TWBC Workshops in Mbita Kenya (credit: Sharon Peters)

On many occasions in 2009 I described myself as an ordinary teacher who has had extraordinary opportunities. I am very thankful for those extraordinary opportunities and for the many, many inspiring teachers and visionaries I met over the course of the year.

Top Ten Special Moments

Take2 videos - footage shot in Sudan

Take2 videos - footage shot in Sudan

1. Working with Karin Muller of Take2 videos:

Karin Muller, who created Take2 videos non-profit organization, has definitely been one of the most inspiring people to personally touch my life and my teaching practice. Karin skyped into my classroom to provide assistance to my students to first understand the documentary process and then create their own short documentaries based on the footage of Darfur refugee camps that she provided. Her stories and those of whom she chronicled are unforgettable. We have shared many rich conversations; I would love to meet her face to face someday. More about my students’ work with Take2 and the sites where you can learn more can be found here and here.


2. Selecting team for Teachers Without Borders Canada

From start to finish, the TWBC (now EBB) team that I led while in Africa was top shelf. The team was comprised of Jody Meacher (QC), John Schinker (Ohio), Zac Chase (IL/PA), Lois McGill-Horn (Manitoba), Ian Vailingitham (ON) and Noble Kelly (BC). Belonging to a team that collaborated so well at a distance and even better on the ground in Africa was a rare opportunity. My teammates were professional, hilarious and big-hearted – a fantastic combination. I returned from Africa with a hunger and a drive to work full-time with such a team. I am still looking….

3. Students working with XOs and Doctors Without Borders

I have had a particular fascination with the XO laptop and have not only brought a few with me to Africa, but had a few more donated to me over the course of the past year which my students were able to appreciate. My students were asked to develop educational content using the programs on the XO and then we were able to ship several of them over to Nepal and Kenya. Unfortunately, they never reached their destination in Nepal due to customs restrictions (possibly corruption), so I learned the hard way to work with trusted NGOs who are working on the ground. Nevertheless, the student learning from experience of developing content for a real audience was very valuable. Another authentic learning opportunity came about when my students working on the Darfur video project were able to skype out to an administrator of a Doctors Without Borders Camp in Sudan (who was in Canada at the time). They later used some of the audio from the interview and incorporate it into their documentary.

4. Kiva

It seemed like one day I was showing the Kiva video - A Fistful of Dollars - to my grade seven advisory class and the next they had taken charge of a plan to approach the Students Council to donate money to Kiva. They worked for several weeks on a multimedia slideshow presentation to persuade the Student Council to provide a loan and follow it through their high school career (four more years). I was very proud of their initiative, dedication and enthusiasm of their undertaking. They truly owned the idea, the process and the vision.

5. NECC – winning award

It was an iffy project and one of my students thought it would never take off and go anywhere, but the Darfur Video Project ended with a big bang in spite of many false starts. The pairing of a terrific idea (Karin Muller’s amazing video footage of a Sudan refugee camp and with her unwavering support) and engaged and hard-working students was the recipe for success for this initiative. I knew that overall the project had significant educational merit, but I was stunned and delighted when it was awarded first place for the Online Learning Award by ISTE. The recognition entirely belongs to Karin and to my students.


6. Partnering with two NGOs in South Africa

We have terrific NGO partners in Africa and these partnerships make all the difference in cross-cultural initiatives. A good deal of communication and coordination is required. For several months ahead of time, we were in regular communication with our partners, Edunova and Khanya. Communicating online with anyone in Africa is always challenging, but their dedication helped us to contextualize our preparation for our visit with teachers in South Africa. I thank John Thole (Edunova) and Kobus van Wyk (Khanya) especially for their roles in this initiative. I learned a lot through our interactions; they were excellent cultural interpreters who understood the challenges of their educational system and the teachers themselves. I look forward to another season of working with these fine people and hope our partnership will be even stronger this year.

7. Twitter moment

Sharon explaining XO to Dan Otedo

Sharon explaining XO to Dan Otedo

Probably my favourite twitter story for 2009 was when I took a chance on my twitter network and asked if there was anyone out there who would be willing to donate an XO laptop to a teacher in Kenya. The story begins when I asked Dan Otedo, a leader of our partnering NGO in Kenya (African Centre for Women, ICT), if I could bring him a souvenir from Washington DC, knowing that Kenyans, in general, are big fans of Obama. I was expecting him to ask for a baseball cap or tshirt. To my surprise, he responded, “I would like an XO laptop”. Now one generally cannot just pick up an XO in any of the Washington DC souvenir shops, so I was in a bit of a quandary. So I put the request out on twitter. To my great delight, a follower of a follower responded! She shipped the XO to one of our team members and so Dan was able to get his hands on one of these amazing machines. The generosity of others never fails to touch me. And the power of twitter is not to be underestimated!

8. Visiting the islands of Lake Victoria, Kenya

Visiting any part of Africa is special – having the opportunity to visit remote communities – those on hard-to-reach islands, is particularly special. Our team was able to spend a day visiting 3 islands in Lake Victoria. On two of those islands, we visited at least one primary school. Just as most other schools we visited on the mainland, these schools were very poor and lacked electricity and resources. However, the children on these islands also were affected by the remoteness; they had probably never seen electrical powered devices or automobiles until they have opportunity to leave the island. The conditions on the islands are very bad. On one of the islands – the one furthest from the mainland, I felt as though I was in the wild west or in some surreal Star Wars movie (remember that bar scene in the first movie?). It was the closest I felt to being in danger of my time in Kenya.

The final island we visited, Mfangano Island, was remarkably special and stood out from the other two. There we met Chas Salmen, a graduate student completing his thesis in medical anthropology (now a medical student in the US), who had studied the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst the fishing communities due to prostitution. He, and many Kenyan nationals, were fund-raising to build a community centre that would house an amphitheatre, testing clinics, an Internet centre, and a radio station. The official opening of the building was in December 2009. The computers for the centre were held up in customs, but soon this remote island of 19,000 would have a fully functional community centre. The vision for this project was staggering and one of the most inspirational I have encountered. To my great delight, our organization has been invited back to Mfangano to provide ICT training for its teachers using the resources now available in this incredible initiative. Truly, this was one of the high points of not just my visit to Kenya, but to my entire year!

Chas Salmen on Mfangano Island

Chas Salmen on Mfangano Island

9. Meeting Mama Sara

It was a completely serendipitous and unexpected meeting. We had been told that the Obama homestead was within a half hour of our travels between Mbita and Gilgil, our next destination. I asked our American team members if they were interested in making a small detour so we could visit the homestead. Receiving a positive response, I asked our Kenyan drivers to make the detour – they were thrillled! I promptly fell asleep in the “way back” of the mutatu to be awakened a short time later… on a Kenyan farm. I was a bit confused. We stepped out of the van, showed our passports to the Kenyan soldiers and went out to look around the basic Kenyan farmyard – no one else seemed to be around. We found two gravestones – one each for Obama’s father and grandfather. While we were taking photos of this, a woman stepped out of the house and informed us, “She is taking breakfast and will see you soon.” Okay, who was “she”?? “She” was Obama’s grandmother – actually, the stepmother of Obama’s father. In a little while, she did join us. A guest book was passed around which we signed. She answered of our questions through a translator and we had our photo taken. About 7 weeks prior to my visit to Mama Sara’s farm, I was in Washington D.C. The difference between those two locations was vast. And yet, there was that one connection….

Mama Sarah - Obama's Grandmother

Mama Sarah - Obama


10. Special conferences

Last year, I had the privilege of attending a few conferences. The three that stand out were Educon, NECC and CCK09 Online. My daughter attended Educon with me again in January and was warmly welcomed by the staff and students at Student Leadership Academy. I recall many good conversations that shaped my thinking for the future. It was also my opportunity to talk to Zac Chase about Africa; he later was selected as one of our team members. Attending NECC had not been in my original plans. The timing was too close to my departure to Africa. But when our Darfur Video Project won first place, I decided to attend to accept the award. The three and half days were a blur of meetings, presentations and running around to find resources to bring to Africa. I left from Washington to New York to catch my flight to South Africa. Though my experiences in Africa eclipsed the conference, it was an unforgettable intense 3 days of very fine conversations and reunions with special friends. It was indeed an unexpected blessing to attend NECC. And finally, the opportunity to share the podium with John Thole (Edunova) for the CCK09 online conference was very special because it gave an opportunity for an African to use an online platform to a global audience about technology advancements in that continent.

John Thole admiring the Cape Town sunset (credit: Sharon Peters)

John Thole admiring the Cape Town sunset (credit: Sharon Peters)

Final Thoughts

Here are some final thoughts summarizing some key ideas and insights from my year:

Having the opportunity to return to Africa brought about better understanding of differences in culture and how culture influences the adoption of technologies. Africa is ahead of us (in North America) in using mobile technologies in resourceful and innovative ways. This is borne out of necessity and accessibility. We could learn much from them.

Working on a team of like-minded, passionate, dedicated, and deep-thinking educators is an invaluable experience that has changed my perspective on education. A team like this can accomplish a great deal and I deeply wish I can have that experience again in the future.

Taking risks as an educator or as a student is under-valued in our current system. Some of the remarkable experiences of my year were not due to expertise or especially superior intelligence on my part (I wish!), but to the risks I was willing to take to pursue projects and relationships.

Reality-based learning projects offer excellent opportunities for students to learn 21st c skills as they become empathetic global citizens. I have become a strong advocate of these kinds of projects.

We have entered the second decade of this millenium. I am more excited than ever. We live in exciting times to be an educator and I have high hopes and optimism for 2010. I wish the same for you.

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