Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 1st Recap

Tuesday, November 1st was our last official day together as a group. The time went too fast and we all could have stayed longer to learn more. The morning session was a visit to St. Cyprian's school, a private school for girls. They said that the closer to the mountain you were, the richer you were and this school was pretty much as close to the mountain as you could get. The students here pay 64,000 Rand a year (over $8000 USD) to attend. There are scholarships available and they also have students who are boarders.

This school was absolutely amazing! We were greeted in every hallway by smiling people who all wished us a good morning. The atmosphere was happy, light, and positive. The rooms had great windows and amazing pictures that were the size of their walls based on what type of class was taught in that room. I am actually trying to find images that I can use in my room to ask if they would purchase one or two for some of the grey wall space in my lab.

They converted a gym space into a media center. In the center is a spiral staircase that leads to a loft area that holds giant bean bag chairs. There is wi-fi in this area, so they said that many of the girls find their way their in their free time with their laptops to sit and work. This was probably the first library that I've seen that I would even spend time in. One other feature of note was that they had thin clients in their media center and were putting 5 or 6 thin clients in the classrooms for quick research. The teachers said that they are wonderful to use to look something up while class is in session. I wish my teachers would use those that they have in our classrooms in this way.

When we moved down to their lower school, we went into a grade 1 classroom (I believe) where they were all actively participating in learning centers. There were girls standing on chairs in the back of the room at the word wall copying their vocabulary words down, others working on some sort of writing activity, and a group at the front of the room using Mouse Mischief with the teacher at the SMARTBoard. I have to admit that I had heard of Mouse Mischief awhile back, but hadn't taken the time to look at it. Now that I saw it in action I am plotting ways to get my teachers to use it in their classrooms. What a great tool to keep kids involved!

They also took us on a tour of their music department. What an amazing place this was! They have practice rooms for every instrument family and a rock lab! One of the instructors has a strong rock background and they have, I believe, two performing rock groups amongst many other performing ensembles. They are also starting to use iPads to assist in teaching guitar. Hopefully St. Cyprian's will be a new part of the Rock Our World team for next season! They would be an amazing addition to the team.

Before we left, we were introduced to some of the students that were involved in their award winning Phantom Tollbooth project. I'd try to explain it, but I think they did it better. Here is a link to their story in their words.

Our last professional meeting was with Mark Horner. He is involved in a project called Siyavula. Siyavula is a Nguni word that means “we are opening.” The goal of this group is to share teaching resources and benefit from the use of technology. This group has written several textbooks that are available online through a site called Connexions. The textbooks can be printed for use in the classroom, used online, downloaded and adapted to meet different situations, and shared with everyone around the world. Their end goal would be to have texts written for every subject that are used online in classrooms and adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Monday, November 14, 2011

October 31st Recap

Today was our last full day of professional meetings for this trip. Hard to believe that it’s almost over already, but the 17 hours of travel really does take up two days. It’s been a great experience and one I will not soon forget. The problem will be sharing the information and using it to impact the lives of my friends, family, students and teachers.

This morning we started our day at Liwa Primary School in the township of Langa. This school is one of many who have received technology equipment and software through the Kanya Project. We were escorted to their computer lab where one of the grade 3 classes were logging on. Many of us were familiar with the error message that appeared on many of the students’ screens and immediately jumped into action. Thankfully we had an ICT expert with us who restarted the server allowing us to get almost all of the students up and running. We were able to watch them as they worked with some of the provided software. They were working on learning new high frequency words in their native tongue, isixhosa. About halfway through the class, the students then switch to practicing math skills using a program called CAMI Mathematics. Although these programs would be something that many of us would only use for interventions, the kids were enjoying their work and progressing in their skills, which is what is important.

The principal then completed our tour throughout some of the other classrooms. In many classes we were greeting by all of the students and they performed some rote tasks that they have learned and were very proud to share what they’ve learned. What shocked me the most with the rest of our tour was when we went into the room that functions as one of we might call a classroom for students with learning disabilities. There were about 12 students in the class from 11 to 15 years old. This classroom was very drab and lacked the color that many of the other classrooms had in abundance. The teacher explained that they do a lot of work on the board together reinforcing what they learn in the books. She said that after they do it on the board, the skill is often gone by the time they try to do it on paper. It appeared though that many of the students were fairly high functioning. There was no evidence of mental retardation or even conditions that can be identified visually such as Down’s Syndrome or a physical disability. This was a recurring theme throughout most of our visits.

We then traveled to visit a secondary school in the townships. This was a no fee school due to the area that it was located it. Here we did not get to interact with the students because they were taking written exams. We snuck quietly through a large assembly hall with students seated at desks that were lined up in very tight rows as we made our way into the computer lab. This lab had two very different looking sides. One side had old white computers with the large and deep monitors, the other side had new machines with flat screen computers that still had their plastic on them.

We had a very welcome and interesting surprise here. While we were there to discuss the Khanya project and the effects that this program has had on their schools, we found out that one of the men who assists several schools with their technology was actually from the United States. He moved to South Africa several years ago and has worked in various positions, but has settled into his current position that allowed him to come and chat with us. His point of view was very different from the principal, the man from the Khanya Project (who's name I can't remember), the teacher in the computer lab, and just about everyone else we had spoken to. While we were there to specifically look at technology in education, it was possible to not discuss the state of education in South Africa.

I believe I mentioned previously that there were places where the teachers would just not show up for days and months at a time. The people at Mereka found this out when students would text using Dr. Math looking for the syllabus so that they could continue to do their work when their teacher was not present. For us it was unbelievable that there would be teachers who just don't show up or only show up when they want to. Not only is this absenteeism a problem, but the teachers do not all have a strong education background. I'm not entirely sure what you need to become a teacher in South Africa, but it really doesn't seem to be all that much. One of our guides made it sound like she had a semester of classes and now she is a teacher. I suppose that a teacher who is there and tries to teach the students is better than one who might have training but doesn't show up to do the job.

Getting to school is a problem as well. There are areas where the one school in the village is miles away and it takes half the day to walk there and the other half to walk back home. There are rivers that rise in the wet season that do not allow the students to cross to get to school. They told us several places that young children have been swept away in the high waters as they were trying to get to school. These are problems that we really do not have to deal with here and we are very lucky.

One of the other key ideas that was brought up during this discussion was professional development. This was one of the problems that we face here in the US and Canada as well. The current system usually throws something at teachers and says do it without giving any time or support to actually implement it in their classrooms. It is also often lecture driven and it isn't usually clear why you are sitting through what seems like an endless day of words with no meaning.

During the evening we met with Professor Cronje and his students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Here his students shared their projects with us that they are working on. They were very interesting and we were grateful for them sharing them with us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Continuation of Day 2

It's hard to believe that our time in South Africa is over and I am back in my classroom thinking back about what I've witnessed, learned, and what and how I can share it with those around me. One way that I need to share is through my sadly neglected blog. I am going to pick up where I left off with our second day in Pretoria with the people from the Mereka Institute.

The discussion swerved once again to the topic of mobiles in education with a program that Mereka started called Dr. Math. Dr. Math is a mobile mathematics tutoring service using instant messaging. The students access tutors using their cell phone and communicate via text messaging. The service is available after school and on the weekends with Sunday night being their most heavily utilized time. They are currently working on a “mathlete” program where students become the tutors. They have found that those students who work with other students actually learn better (learning by teaching is nothing new) and motivate them to better in their work. One school, Cornwall Hill High School, is part of the pilot for this and their students are becoming tutors.

They are looking for more tutors from around the world. It could be those with a good grasp of the subject, teachers, or students who have taken higher level mathematic courses and excelled or are able to work to tutor others. This link will allow you to register to become a tutor and this link will take you to the official Dr. Math website.

While we were at Mereka, we had a special visit from a Mathematic teacher from Cornwall Hill High School. Helen had a very interesting theory about teenagers. She said that they don't own their home, their don't own their bed, and they don't even own the toilet that they use in their home, but they do own a cellular device. She has started to allow them to use mobiles in her classroom because it's something they have ownership of and it allows them to use it to take ownership of their learning.

She said that in the short amount of time that she's been working with them and their mobile devices, she has learned a few things. If she finds an app she likes, chances are it will only be for one type of phone or if it is cross-platform, it won't work the same way on each device. She said she tries to find mobile sites that the students can access regardless of the device they are using. If she does want to use an app, she will team the students into groups and rely on the conversations that occur through the use of the application.

She also said that a good teacher is a good teacher whether they use technology or not. This was something we touched on in nearly every educational meeting that we had. A good teacher is going to be a good teacher regardless of the situation they are in. They will find ways to teach their students. It was agreed, however, that the use of technology could make a good teacher an awesome teacher if they use the technology appropriately.

On the lines of the Digital Doorway discussed in the beginning post for this day, they were also focused on creating MobiKits. These MobiKits will contain mobile devices (cell phones or tablets), a MobiCharge that will use solar energy to charge the batteries for the devices and the wireless signal, and another piece that will supply the Internet source. These will be packed up in tough cases and distributed again into rural villages that will not have lines to provide Internet services. This is one of their new projects and Grant was working hard on the prototype.

The people at Mereka were truly innovators. They were thinking way outside of the box to find solutions for very unique situations. Their one problem seemed to be putting their research into practice. I hope that they are able to find a way to involve practitioners in their efforts to start building their programs.

After our inspirational day at Mereka, we left the CSIR facility and toured Pretoria, also called Jacaranda city, because of all the beautiful Jacaranda trees that line the streets. We were very lucky to be there during this time because they were in full bloom!

Pretoria is one of the three capitals of South Africa. It is the home of the executive branch. We drove through the city visiting the site of the Union Building and the beautiful gardens below. We drove past the United States Embassy and some other historical sites including Paul Kruger's home. The view from in front of the Union Building was beautiful as you could see the lines of purple Jacaranda trees.

Our next stop was the Lesedi Cultural Village. Here we took a tour of five different African tribes and learned a bit about each of them. We saw what they lived in, some of the things that they ate, what they wore, and learned a few of their phrases. After the tour we gathered around a fire pit to enjoy native music and dance for each of the tribes. The evening ended with a feast of traditional tribal foods including crocodile! Everyone had a wonderful evening and we glad to head back to the hotel for some rest.

You can view my photographs from today's events here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Catching Up

Internet connectivity is not great here in South Africa. That we have definitely discovered. I ran through 3 days worth (or 1 GB) in less than a day trying to upload photos. Now I know I must wait to share all of my shots until I get home. I will show some here and there when I get a chance to.

I'm going to skip to today, Sunday, since it is so fresh in my mind. If I would have been smarter, I would have just blogged in Pages and then copied and pasted it here. Now I know for tomorrow.

This morning five of us decided to take the "Walking Township Tour." What a wise decision we made! It was really amazing and quite an eye opening experience. To see how people live and how many live this way was shocking! We were are truly, truly blessed!

We started by heading to District 6. While we sat on a road that was situated between the two roads that served as boundaries, our guide Ivey, gave us a brief history of the area. I can't even begin to share it with you as I don't want to get it wrong, so here is a link to the museum website.

From there we traveled to what they call the "Cape Flats." They call them this because when you look out from Table Mountain, all that you see is flat lands. Here is where the Cape Town townships lie. There are several and we visited two or three this morning. Ivey seemed to know everyone as we traveled along, which was great to see.

The first place she took us to had many hostels. We were able to view the inside of two. One original and the other refurbished. To know that more than one family stayed in the first hostel location was amazing. They were squeezed in, all family members sleeping in one bed with two other families in the room as well. There were few furnishings and they had very few things. It made me very sad to see these living conditions, but this was not the worst we would see today.

The second hostel that we visited had been refurbished and the people that lived their were the owners. There was fresh paint on the wall and the family had furnishings and a tv. This was much more livable and yet I still thought back to my first apartment which was much bigger just for me and there were at least 7 people living in that small environment. These people were very lucky and very proud of their home.

Before we left, we shopped at her friends stand near the hostels. He was from Nairobi, Kenya and a very thankful man. We each bought trinkets to bring home and share and he thanked us very much for supporting him and his family.

I think this is all I have time for tonight as we have an early morning. Maybe I will work on typing more on my way in tomorrow morning.

Before you go to sleep tonight, be sure to thank everyone around you for all you have.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Second Full Day in South Africa - Johannesburg/Pretoria

So today was our second official day here in Joburg and our last. We were up early and headed to the Meraka Institute to talk with them about ICT. We were all very pleased with the discussions that we held with the people there. They came from very varied backgrounds, (ie. marketing and music, Navy torpedo specialist, social sciences, etc.) but work well together as a team creating ingenious projects!

During the introductions we got off on a tangent about mobile devices. Adele had some great viewpoints on the two ends of the mobile device user spectrum. While we might have several devices that we use for several purposes (I am guilty of this) many in Africa and the less privileged may share one cell phone with several people. It was also interesting to hear how they might have one phone but several sim cards that they exchange throughout the day to get the best rates available. Many will also skip a meal to pay for air time. She also said that they use their phones for all purposes. While we may use our phone to talk, a camera to take pictures, a laptop to type papers, etc., they will use the one device for everything. There are even some situations where all the information for one village is held on one device. South Africa also has cell phone coverage across the entire country, though some areas may be spotty.

We also continued to discuss mobiles and how to get them into classrooms. We talked about the debate of whether students should bring their own devices to use in school or should schools provide a 1 to 1 situation. Very interesting since this might come up at North Schuylkill.

Another large chunk of the day was spent discussing the Digital Doorway project. This is one of the coolest things I have ever seen or heard of! The man behind it was pretty cool as well. He dressed up (in jeans and a tie dyed t-shirt) because we were coming today and he had a pair of those sneakers with the toes in on. He and his team created computers that are placed on the veranda of a building in a village where there are no computers. They bolt them down and they are created to be all-weather machines. Several new prototypes are being built based on issues that they've had at some of the locations as well as new prototypes for the countries were some of these machines are deployed that they would be able to afford and build in their countries. They are not connected to the internet and have an internal database with information and games. They wanted to make it as educational as possible.

So they place these machines in these villages and then monitor how they are used. From the first drops they learned a lot and are still working on new features to add, such as a bluetooth dongle that will allow the users to send themselves information and videos to their phones. The most important thing about this project is that it is making an impact on the communities and users. The users are learning skills that make them employable. There was one instance of an 80+ year old man who had his grandchild or child take him to the computer. They typed in his name and he was happy because he saw a computer and it knew him and he knew it. There were many more stories similar to this as well.

Due to the time here, I'm going to sign off tonight, but I will be sure to post more tomorrow, hopefully while we are at the airport waiting for our flight to Cape Town. Topics will be Dr. Math, Mathletes, Cornwall Hill High School, our tour of Pretoria, and Lesedi Cultural Center.

Links can still be found here and my pictures are being uploaded here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Full Day in South Africa - Johannesburg

Greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa! It is the end of my first full day here in South Africa and I am taking some time to sit and think through everything that happened. It was a wild and crazy ride for sure!

Today we started with a history lesson, which was very interesting. Then we had a meeting with a man from the Department of Education. He told us a lot about what they are doing with technology on the government end. Then we took a ride through Soweto. So different from being here in the city right now! We went to lunch at a restaurant called Roots. We sat outside on a patio and did a lot of people watching and picture taking. The kids coming home from school were very cute. They would stop and wave or pose for us to take their picture!

Then we went to an orphanage. There were 200 children there who were orphaned because their parents died from complications due to the AIDS virus. Some of them were infected and others were not. The numbers of people still affected by HIV/AIDS here is unreal. One in three women between the ages of 25 and 29 are infected with the disease. Their life expectancy rate is only to the age of 47 too, which is very young to die.

Tomorrow we will be spending the day talking with teachers at the Meraka Institute. Then tomorrow night we will be going to the Lesidi Cultural Center. This will be our last night in Johannesburg before we leave for Cape Town.

See this link for information about the places we visit.

Here are the pictures from today.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Housing Information

I am finally taking the time to sit and start my blog about my trip to South Africa. First a bit of background information. This spring, I received a letter from the organization People to People. This was not the first time that I received a letter from them and I usually open it to find out that I am being invited to be a part of an early childhood delegation. However, this one was addressed to me as my former role of a Classrooms for the Future Coach, so I was definitely intrigued. I opened it to see that I was being invited to participate in the education technology delegation that was also involving ISTE, which is sort of an ed techies "mothership." I immediately got very excited and hid the letter from my parents. They would not be as excited as I was, at least I didn't think. I wrote a letter to my superintendent and school board asking if it would be allowable for me to participate in this delegation. Eventually, Dr. Smarkanic mentioned the trip to my mom who would have been much happier if she had heard it from me first. At the last board meeting of the school year, my trip was approved by the school board and I began to move forward with paperwork and planning.

The reason that this is the first trip I was truly interested in taking was because of the pairing of ISTE and People to People. I knew that the trip to China in December of last year was the first big "delegation" from ISTE to travel to another area of the world and meet with educators there to discuss their schools and how technology is used. I felt very honored to have received this invitation and was excited that I could participate in such an important experience. I am very excited to travel to South Africa to find out more about their culture, geography, and education. Not very many educators get to participate in these types of experiences and I thank North Schuylkill for allowing me to be a part of this experience. I'm sure that it will change my life and my teaching. I look forward to sharing my experiences with my students and creating some more global connections to open the walls of my classroom further.

Yesterday, I received some much anticipated information, the locations that we would be staying while we were in the different locations. I eagerly googled the three hotels, one in Johannesburg, one in Cape Town, and one at Kruger National Park. I was VERY impressed by the images that I saw as well as the comments by those who had already been there. While in Johannesburg, we will be staying at the Southern Sun Grayston. While we are in Cape Town, we will be staying at the Southern Sun Cape Sun, and when I go to Kruger for our 2 day safari, we will be staying at Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.

Keep watching for new updates as I receive more information. My goal is to keep note of my experiences here for those who are interested and my students.