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.