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.

Images from Kenya (TWBC09)

I am using some of our precious bandwidth to share some of my favourite photos from Kenya so far! More to come when I can.

Tomorrow we begin our workshops for fifty local teachers from about fifteen schools in the Mbita area on the shores of Lake Victoria. This region faces the greatest incidence of HIV-AIDS infection in Eastern Africa with an infection rate of up to 40%. The consequences from this are devastating for every sector in the community.

Chronicling Africa: On to Kenya

Cross-posted on Education Beyond Borders site

Kibuogi Island student receiving soccer ball from TWB team

Kibuogi Island student receiving soccer ball from TWB team

I am writing this while being bumped and jolted along miles of deeply rutted highways on the plains below the Great Rift Valley as we travel to the Maasai Mara for team building. After we landed in Nairobi, We met seven additional members to TWBC/Education Beyond Borders team who will form a second team providing maths, science and English prof dev opportunities to two additional locations in Kenya. Maasai pastoralists, dressed in their traditional brighly coloured blankets, can be seen leading their herds of cattle, sheep and goats.

Yesterday we flew out of Cape Town – and I must admit that it was with a strong sense of sadness to leave behnind strengthened as well as new friendships.

It is difficult to compare my experiences from last year to this year – it was a different team and we were ground-breaking our relationships and approaches. This year we strategized – or attempted to – more carefully where and for whom we provided our workshops and sessions.

At the beginning of our final week in Cape Town we had a healthy post-mortem with Edunova and aired our frustrations and challenges from the previous two weeks – as well as the many months of planning before that. We identified breakdowns of communication and the necessity for transparency of goals and expectations. Just as importantly, we discussed the importance of earlier planning for the following year.

The younger and less experienced Edunova ICT facilitators expressed a better understanding of the need for orientation and communication in planning. Next year we hope to work much more closely with them and much earlier.

For each of the groups we worked with, teachers, principals, and provincial ICT facilitators, we had created a ning space to better facilitate communication, collaboration and sharing of resources. For each of those spaces, core facilitators were assigned to oversee and moderate the online community and foster its growth.

We spent one day working closely with the Edunova facilitators with more indepth training in multimedia ICT integration and moodle training. For two days we visited classes of learners and shadowed a teacher who had come to our workshops two weeks ago. We all agreed it was a highlight of our time in Cape Town – seeing young learners in their classes. We left behind several Flip cameras at three schools in order to kick off school exchanges.

Definitely a high point of my week was being asked to take over the teaching of a class of 50 grade 7 learners. I asked them to divide into groups, pose a set of questions based on their recent study of matter and materials, and use a Flip camera to record their responses.

I was amazed at the how seriously they took their “assignment”. To my astonishment, all seven groups completed a first go, complete with video footage!They should be proud of their efforts. Unfortunately, their school’s computer lab had recently experienced a burglary of the equipment and it looked as though it would be some months before they would have a working lab.

——

We are now in Mbita after another nine hour road trip on the dusty and rocky roads (mostly unpaved). Mbita is a somewhat large fishing community along the shores of Lake Victoria. In two days we have visited seven schools and are currently working at the SUBA community centre examining the status of the 12 standalone computers the centre houses. To our dismay, while the computers are in excellent shape, they are lacking video and audio drivers and updates which may prevent the use of Windows movie Maker and Photostory 3. Today we are also hoping to install the eGranary unit along with a laptop. We also brought with us wireless remotes for some of the desktops so that they can be connected to the eGranary as well.

We thought we would have a house to ourselves here in Mbita, but that did not work out, so the six of us are staying with a couple in the community who are very involved in education at the national level. Jane and Daniel have been rich sources of information about the culture and Kenyan education system. Their generous hospitality has been overwhelming to these wuzungu (white folks).

The pace in Kenya is much slower and, in some ways, a welcome relief to my own hectic North American lifestyle.

Tomorrow we head off to Mfangando Island in Lake Victoria to visit 3 very remote schools.

We are tired teachers who are working late every night on our upcoming workshop sessions and rising every morning and out the door for many visits with teachers and students.

Thanks for your continuing support and encouragement. We would love to hear from you if you are following our travels….

My experiences this year have given me new insights into how Kenya’s journey of Information and Communications Technologies will be considerably different from ours in Canada. I have much to think about as we plan our workshops for next week.

Chronicling Africa: Week One (TWB-C 09)


After months of workshop preparation, logistical arrangements and no shortage of communication mixups with our partnering organizations, we completed our first week of workshops for teachers in the Cape Town township area of Philippi. The teachers were an enthusiastic crowd representing half a dozen or more of the local primary and high schools in the area. They were invited to the workshops through the Edunova facilitators who work with them in their schools. By mid-week the teachers expressed a desire to spend more time working with the software or interactive whiteboards, so we adjusted our schedule to suit their wishes.

One of the goals of TWB-C is to demonstrate the importance of networked and collaborative professional development that goes beyond one’s own school walls. To facilitate this ability for this group of teachers, we created a ning – ICT Champs – where the teachers may go online to share, post, collaborate and find resources that address their needs as a South African teacher. The teachers were excited to discover such a potentially empowering tool.

By the end of the week, many teachers were able to create their first detailed Word doc, PowerPoint, forum response and blog post as well as touch and manipulate the interactive white board and video camera. They were also asked to create a lesson and unit that would use an ICT tool or approach. And of course, they now have their own online space to continue the relationships and conversations.

Throughout the week my own sets of beliefs about educational technology were challenged again and again. As much as I knew about the South African culture, I questioned time and again our approaches and delivery. One short week of handling technology tools and software is hardly enough to transform an educator’s practice and paradigm of teaching and learning (with ICT as a support to learning). Addressing the difficulties of the South African system is not within our power or scope. These teachers are frustrated chiefly by lack of access due to economic barriers brought on by larger issues. Theft of computers and computer lab equipment is rampant.

A few of our workshops did present the need to address barriers and work together as a community to overcome them. It was pointed out to them that the power to change and be pro-active rather than reactive had to come from within themselves – and through active partnerships with organizations such as Edunova and Khanya who exist to support the needs of educators to use ICT.

However, many of my own questions arise from what I would call philosophical questions about when and how to introduce ICT practices in cultures of developing nations. Where is the balance to be struck between ICT pedagogy and handling the tools (software, hardware)? When does it become information overload? What emerging technologies should be brought to their attention? What technology tools are already being used in the culture that could be exploited for educational uses (i.e. mobile technologies). What homegrown best practices exist to show them as exemplars?

Tomorrow, we are guests at a Principals’ ICT Bootcamp where we will make a presentation about ICT Leadership and School Vision. Beginning Tuesday, we are offering workshops for the ICT facilitators of Edunova and Khanya for the rest of the week. These are the people who will continue to work with the teachers in the schools, so their professional development and growth are important to the sustainability of ICT support. Well over 100 such facilitators are expected to cycle through our workshops – each representing at least one or more school where they work. Potentially many teachers will affected by these workshops. Because they are ICT facilitators, I have fewer reservations about demanding a good deal of understanding and growth!

I want to thank all of you who have expressed their support for us in the last few weeks – my friends at NECC, my colleagues in Montreal, and many of you through twitter, Facebook, plurk and email. It keeps me going in those down times. Please keep it up!