Kids communicating with kids…

“Hands on heads. Now shoulders. Where are your shoulders? Well done!”

This is the first time Jess and Tyler, two Aussie Year 6 students interact via Skype with preschoolers at KNB, Phaltan, as part of the Granny Cloud project. The little ones on the other side stare wide eyed at these two strangers on the screen. Who knows what they they are thinking!

On the Phaltan side, the session is facilitated by 13 year old Shruti, whose English and computer skills were enhanced by her own Granny Cloud experiences over a number of years. She confidently guides, encourages and translates as required. This is part of an experiment to introduce this kind of exposure at a much younger age to gauge its impact.

After a while, the children begin to warm up and join in, first one, then another, as Jess and Tyler slowly introduce the body parts and sing the song “Heads and Shoulders, knees and toes’. Their excitement is evident through their muttered exchange of observations in between… ‘Heads and shoulders… the one in white is joining in!.. knees and toes… oh wow look at the little one in the middle!.. heads and shoulders…they’re getting it!… knees and toes… look, look they’re all doing it!!…'” It’s an adrenalin rush that I recognise from my own Granny Cloud sessions, even now after all these years, that comes from a rewarding exchange with children when you see it’s going well and they are responding.”

After the session I ask the girls what surprised them. “How quickly they caught on. It was really awesome that we got to teach them. Can’t wait till next week!” And from the other side? Prassana, who’s researching the effects of early interactions of this kind: “It was wonderful. The little ones warmed up so quickly” And a text exchange between the girls…

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Self challenge: A post a day for a week #2

Surprise in the cloud…

It should have been a disappointment that my School in the Cloud session is cancelled today, as I was looking forward to reconnecting with the girls at GGSS in New Delhi after their summer break. Instead I end up enjoying a delightful individual interaction with a surprisingly articulate twelve year old…

Jaya, the first student back at school after the summer, greets me with a ‘Hullo Mam’ and I wonder momentarily how we’ll manage to last the forty minute session in limited English, without a whole group to share the conversation. After a brief introductory chat about family and how much she enjoys playing with her three year old niece, I ask about the school holidays.

Jaya draws herself up and talks confidently about an organised school trip to various sites around Delhi. I’m captivated by her enthusiastic description of the hands on activities at the Science Museum, an exciting visit to  Chhatarpur Temple and an interlude at Indira Gandhi Park. She talks about her first ever encounter with soldiers, what she noticed and what she found out from them. She tells me about games they played in the park and offers to demonstrate next time when the girls are back at school. I’m impressed by her thoughtful commentary on what she observed and how she learned from each experience.

I ask Jaya whether she feels she learns more at school or through experiences such as these. We talk about the difference between this kind of experiential learning and the kind that happens at school (especially traditional Indian school) where the focus is on marks and tests. When poor sound or unfamiliar accents limit communication, we use written chat to confirm mutual understanding.

‘I think you can learn much more on your own,’ she says. I ask if she knows that Professor Sugata Mitra, founder of School in the Cloud, believes that children can learn by themselves. ‘It’s true,’ she says… ‘but you still need school and teachers to teach you other important things.’

When time is up, I congratulate Jaya on her English and tell her how much I’ve enjoyed our conversation. After the call, the site coordinator sends me a message to say how impressed the school is by the progress Jaya has made through these interactions.

Hours later I’m still thinking about the grace of this lovely young lady, her eagerness to learn and her appreciative retelling of the kind of excursion that students at my privileged school take totally for granted.

Once again I am reminded of the opportunities for mutual learning which these interactions create.

* If you’re interested in joining the Granny Cloud, read more and apply on the School in the Cloud website.

Why can’t school look like this?

The playground is covered in white and the children are pressed up against the window observing a new phenomenon. It’s hailing…

I know this because of a video posted on the regularly updated Facebook page, via which I observe my 16 month old grandson learning.

His environment can’t be called ‘child care’, as there is so much more than simply ‘care’ going on there, every minute of every day. It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word ‘gannenet’ means both a preschool teacher and a gardener, since they both nurture those in their care and encourage them to grow!

The next batch of photos show a jug of hail being passed around so that all the children can observe and explore it. Some touch, some taste… each seems absorbed in their own discovery.

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On other occasions, the gannenet posts unedited videos or photos of both planned and spontaneous learning experiences, of free play and interactions between the children, who are aged from several months to three years. The learning is made visible to parents and grandparents via these instant updates. Sometimes she includes comments and observations, other times I observe for myself. Either way I find it fascinating!

I know this is nothing special to early childhood educators, but I’ve always taught older kids. When my own children were young, I was probably too busy being a mum to observe the process of their learning in the way a granny can, so I find what she shares appealing on a number of levels, beyond simple pleasure at watching Shai’s development.

Passion for learning…

I’m a teacher and a learner, passionate about learning in all its contexts, so I value this opportunity to observe inquiry learning at its best – provoking young children’s curiosity about the world around them and standing by while they explore and construct meaning for themselves.

Beliefs about learning…

It’s interesting and validating to see evidence of my school’s learning principles in these tiny, natural learners. Inquiry comes naturally. They construct meaning and apply their learning in different contexts. They learn in different ways. They are actively engaged, the learning is social and often collaborative. I believe I can even see them thinking about their learning 🙂

Wondering about learning…

Observing the learning in this context makes me reflect on the typical school system and its limiting structures, designed for another era, within (or despite) which most of our students are expected to learn.

It makes me wonder:

  • Why can’t schools have multi-age classes, where kids at different stages can learn with and from each other?
  • Why are play, experimentation and exploration not valued more as ways of learning? (not just for little kids)
  • Why doesn’t schooling include a blend of planned learning, natural inquiry and free choice?
  • What if lessons stopped when opportunities for authentic learning occurred in the environment?
  • Why isn’t the process of learning shared regularly online, rather than via official reporting at the end of a semester?
  • Will there ever be a time when learning is assessed, not by comparative grades, but by teachers’ thoughtful observation and students’ ability to express their learning in multiple ways? (even in high school) 
  • What if all teachers in all schools valued curiosity and creativity more than compliance and completion of work? 

Thank you, Shai’s gannenet!

Kids in the cloud…

‘Can you do a dance for us?’ 

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‘Join in. Copy us’…

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The connection with the School in the Cloud lab isn’t very good today – the picture is choppy and it’s difficult to hear some of the time. None of this deters the girls in either Delhi or Melbourne and they find ways to communicate despite the limitations. They are persistent, they keep calling again when Skype drops out, they type in the text box, wait patiently for responses, add emoticons and… they dance the Macarena.

This is my favourite aspect of being involved in Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud project.

I really enjoy my sessions as a ‘cloud granny’ and have, over the years, learned a great deal from my interactions with kids in less advantaged settings in different parts of India. I find it satisfying being involved behind the scenes, interviewing prospective e-mediators and giving feedback about the new website. I have developed some wonderful friendships with others involved and it’s been fascinating to follow the progress of the project over time and to see Sugata’s TED prize dream come to life, but…

Watching kids from different countries and cultures connecting and finding common ground, despite differing beliefs, languages and backgrounds, beats all the rest by far.

Adjusting expectations…

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘No, Ma’am’.

I’m interacting via Skype with Grade 8 students in a SOME session at Ashraya Neelbagh, a residential school for children of migrant labourers near Bangalore and, to my surprise, I’m not finding it all that easy!

When I first began to interact with Indian kids in this way, it took a while to overcome the obstacles, to understand their context and to adjust my expectations. You can read about my early sessions with SOLEs and SOMEs here and here. Once past that initial stage , my experience of such sessions with SOLES  in the past couple of years has usually involved a bunch of enthusiastic, noisy children gathered around the computer, often all talking at once. In one case, it led to a series of valuable learning interactions between some of my own students in Australia and a group at a rural school in Shiragon, 100kms from Goa. Despite the differences in language, environment, culture, economic background, and religion, they found much in common.

This is the first time I have worked with a group in an organized setting such as Ashraya, and it feels more like a school class… albeit a very different type of class than the ones I am used to in my own setting. The children sit in rows on the floor, listen attentively and respond when spoken to with a ‘Yes Ma’am’ or ‘No Ma’am’. They look towards Rajkumar, the volunteer facilitator on their end, every now and again for clarification or reassurance or both.

In my first two sessions, I call them to the camera one by one and ask them individual questions about their families, their favorite subjects at school and the festivals they recently celebrated. They respond willingly and I make a few notes beside their names on my list to help me personalise our connections. I notice 14-year-old Marlinga, right away. He tells me he loves Maths because it’s like a game. It’s different from the other answers, which are polite, short and to the point. He’s the only one who really responds when I ask why a particular subject is their favourite. Is it because his English is better than theirs? Or is he is just a little more confident than the others in interacting with this strange, foreign woman?

When I ask if they have any questions for me, they say ‘No ma’am .’  I share pictures of Australian animals which they appear to enjoy. I show them where I am on the map compared to where they are and they answer my questions about their area. I show them photos of kids at my own school. They seem interested, but have no questions. I am a bit at a loss as to where to head next. I wonder what interests them and how to move past their polite responsiveness.

We talk about games and they tell me what sports they play. They mention a game I am unfamiliar with, and Marlinga tries to explain. When I ask if it’s played with a ball, he says yes and there is a bit of quiet laughter. I ask if they can share what’s funny and after a little resistance, they reveal, with help from Raj, that it is not played with a ball. He has simply said yes, because it’s easier than trying to explain. They show me the sort of stone they actually use and when I laugh, they all laugh with me and  the ice seems to have broken… for now. I ask them to demonstrate the game. They get up and kick the stone around, laughing and chattering as they show me. I feel optimistic, but I know that next time they will be back on the floor in rows, listening, waiting and responding politely…

I need to be respectful of their context and of cultural expectations. Communication is somewhat restricted by language limitations, differences in accent and the Skype connection. But I know I need to find ways to get them to relax a little (me too) , to ask questions and to engage in a two-way conversation. And I know I can’t do this the way I would at my own school…

Face to Face

Guest post by Jackie Barrow who has been involved in the SOLE and SOME project for over three years. During that time she has interacted with different groups of children in a variety of locations in India.

My relationship with Khelghar Palakneeti, a charity run after school provision for the children of the Lakshminagar slum of Pune, began well over a year ago. Their unwavering commitment to the SOLE project is what makes it work so well. For one hour a week, the children are permitted to use the office computer in order to connect with me. No, of course it doesn’t always run smoothly! There are all the usual frustrations; poor connections, no sound, no video, no children, no staff, monsoon rains, holidays and festivals at both ends meaning we’re not around. But when sessions don’t or can’t take place for any reason, we let each other know. This continuity has allowed me to build a real relationship with the children and staff.

An opportunity…

Back in April a film crew from the BBC’s Technology Website came to film me Skyping my group at Khelghar and talking about my involvement in the SOLE and SOME project. Following on from this, the BBC’s One Show, a magazine style programme, proposed a trip to Pune to meet and film with my group of children. I am sure you can imagine how thrilled I was. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

I had no reservations about the trip itself but I did have reservations about the filming. I was worried that the cameras would be intrusive and alter the nature of my interaction with the children. We were to visit the slum where the children live and meet with their families. I thought maybe this would seem somewhat voyeuristic and that the slum dwellers might resent our presence.

However, I need not have worried. The two young men who made up the film crew had both visited India before and were as excited as I was about the project. They quickly became favourites with both the staff and the children and although they and the cameras were ever present, none of us felt inhibited by their presence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did! Not when I was reading stories, teaching felting or just chatting with the children, but I found the ‘interviews’ more difficult and the constant need to try to articulate how I was feeling.

How was I feeling? Well, just completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they are faced with and by the fantastic work going on at Khelghar. I will leave you to read more about Khelghar Palakneeti, but let me tell you how inspiring women like Shubhada Joshi and her team of staff and volunteers are. Some have themselves grown up in the slums of Pune but have managed not only get a basic education but to go on to higher education. Not content with just improving their own lives and prospects, they work to support children and their families, helping them see that education is a way out of the trap of poverty. I felt very proud to be associated with these women and to play my own, very small, part in their project.

Meeting the children…

So how was it, meeting the children? I must confess that I began to feel quite nervous. What were they expecting? Would I prove to be a disappointment, this so-called ‘granny’ from England? I learnt later from Suneeta that they were nervous too! Would they be able to understand me? Would they know what to say? But nerves were soon forgotten on both sides. I had decided to just carry on from the Skype session the week before, when we had been talking about the 2012 London Olympics. Within minutes we were on our hands and knees, sorting and matching pairs of cards. I followed this with a story they knew, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham but instead of just reading it, we acted it out. Their level of participation far outstripped what I had hoped for. I had a second session with the children a couple of days later, a practical activity, teaching them how to make felt. The plan was to make some bunting with the word Khelghar. So we set to with wool, water and soap to create and decorate our felt. Once again, the children threw themselves into the session and although we didn’t quite achieve the finished article at the time, they have shown it to me today, three weeks later, over Skype. Fantastic!

This second session took place in the slum. Khelghar has two small buildings there where they hold classes for groups of girls and younger children. I thought that entering the slum might feel quite intimidating. The piles of rubbish being picked over by birds, cats and people, and the volley of barking from the thin, scabby looking dogs, is hardly welcoming. However, once again, I need not have worried. Whether it was the presence of the cameras, or the respect with which Suneeta Kulkarni and the staff and volunteers from Khelghar, are held within this community, I am not sure. We were greeted with friendly curiosity. People waved, called out greetings and warned us of holes, puddles and mopeds. It was wonderful to see how Suneeta was greeted by the children of the slums of Pune, one little girl rushing down the hill all smiles to throw her arms around Suneeta Tai. Children walked with us up the steep, treacherous lanes between the dwellings.

Homes tend to be a single room, sometimes with a foundation of stone or brick, generally finished with wood or corrugated iron. They house the cooking equipment, sometimes the moped, a small shrine, some clothes storage and a large wooden family bed with a thin mattress. There is no running water inside, though an unreliable electricity supply is delivered across a tangle of wires. The people are construction workers, often the women too. The mother of one of my regulars, a woman of 36, is ill and waiting for her husband to be paid before she can collect her medicine. She has spent the last twenty years carrying bags of sand and cement on building sites. She would be beautiful if she were not so thin and drawn. She is determined that her son will finish his education and have opportunities that she and her husband have not had. In an interview with him earlier, he told us that he wants to be a car mechanic, which is certainly achievable.

So what the BBC’s One Show viewers will make of my experience, I’m not too sure. I hope that the films will not only give a true idea of the vision of Professor Sugata Mitra but will do justice to the efforts of all those who make such a difference to the lives of children on a daily basis. As for me, well I count myself extremely lucky to have had this opportunity and hope very much that I can use it to further support the work of the project. And of course, I will always have a particular interest in the work of Khelghar Palakneeti and in the futures of the children I have met there.

Related posts:

Play House

Opening New Vistas

Teacher as learner

What would you do if you could change the world?

Do you ever wish you were eleven again?

Melbourne film maker Genevieve Bailey looks back fondly on that age as a time of simplicity and hope. So much so, that she chose to interview eleven year old children on her travels around the world and make a documentary. We saw the film yesterday with Year 6 students (mostly aged 11) and loved it.

 

What would you do if you could change the world?

This was my favourite of the questions Year 6 teachers asked the students to consider before seeing the film. It was one of a series of questions Genevieve asked all kinds of eleven year olds she encountered in fifteen countries over a period of several years.

Responses from Year 6 at my school…

 

  • The first thing I would do if I could change the world is distribute money evenly to all the countries so no one would be in poverty.
  • The thing I would do to change the world is to give everyone a house and an education or occupation. I would also put a cheap supermarket near every village or city.
  • Make sure that every one got on with each other.
  • Give everyone the same rights.
  • Make everything free!
  • I would stop homelessness and build wells so people could have clean water.
  • I would ban cigarettes but do it in a way that nobody will get angry or sad.
  • If I could change the world I would have world peace and there would be no war.
  • Make Australian footy a world wide sport.

 

Other questions included ‘What do you like most and least about being eleven?’, ‘What do you worry about?’, ‘Would you rather be clever or good looking?’ How could we take better care of the environment?’ and ‘What do you think will happen in the future?’ (You can see the remaining questions and responses here on their blog.)

After the showing, the students met Genevieive for a Q and A session. She seemed delighted to have an eleven year old audience share their wonderings about the eleven year olds in her film. As a non eleven year old in the audience, I was taken with both the thoughtfulness of the questions and the unaffected enthusiasm of Genevieve’s answers.

Back at school, the students reflected on the film…

‘I was really was blown away when the girl in India said that if she could have anything she would want money to build a house, and then the girl in the USA said she would want a four day weekend’.

‘People may look and sound different but we always have something in common…People who have more want more but people who don’t have a lot want everyone to be happy. People who don’t have as much as me still think the same as me.’

‘I now think that how you feel at a certain age depends on where you live and who you are. I think that someone who lives in an orphanage at 11 and someone who live in America or Australia with a family and a big house will think differently.’

‘People with a lot of things don’t think about what they have they just want more while people with nothing only want what they need to survive. I think that we should be grateful for what we have and not always wanting more. I think that the orphans enjoyed there life the same as the people with stuff’.

When I was eleven, I doubt I had the capacity to express my thinking in this way. If I thought at all about important issues, it certainly didn’t happen at school. Learning about the world consisted of knowing the names of capital cities and recognising flags. I remember learning historical ‘facts’ by heart without evaluating their truth or considering different perspectives. And I don’t recall ever being encouraged to think about changing the world…

I am often struck by the depth of thinking witnessed in many of our students today. Is it because through concept driven learning and an inquiry approach, students engage with big ideas from a young age? Watching, and thinking deeply about, this film is just the beginning for these students, about to explore the notion of inequity for their PYP exhibition unit.

Their central idea is: Developing an awareness and understanding of inequity empowers us to act. Thinking about who you are, your place in the world and what you’d like to change seems like an excellent start.

There are many ways to learn…

I love the idea behind this guest post by my daughter-in-law, Rachel Friedrichs, a high school teacher in Boston.  I’m already thinking about how it could be adapted in different school settings.

I am a teacher at an independent high school in Massachusetts. Every year, for one week in March, we create opportunities for the students to learn outside the classroom. We call it Exploration Week.

Based on the idea that there are many ways to learn, the students choose from a variety of programs, including: intensive glass blowing, nature writing in the Grand Canyon, working on construction sites for Habitat for Humanity, a creative writing workshop, a historic trip through the south, ‘culture vultures’, where the students take in a variety of cultural activities around Boston, and urban farming.

The trip that I co-chaperoned this year took 18 students to New Orleans to volunteer for the St. Bernard project, which is continuing the efforts to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina (still in desperate need 6.5 years later!)

As you can see from the selection above, some of the trips are local, while some students travel. Some programs are arts related, some volunteer based, and others are outdoors. Some programs are free, while some are quite costly. These trips are powerful for a variety of reasons.

  • Students bond with kids from other classes who they might not know.
  • Given the rather competitive academic climate in Boston private schools, we are sending the message that there are lots of ways to learn about the world around you and yourself.
  • We emphasize the importance of communal engagement.
  • The idea that learning can be fun, and fun can be educational permeates the spirit of the week
  • The rhythm of the school-year is broken up giving the kids a little charge for the remainder of the year.
  • Students and teachers get to know each other in a different context.
  • Many of these programs capitalize on skills/talents/strengths of the kids which can often get neglected in classroom study.

I realize that it’s a true privilege to participate in Exploration Week and teach at a school that prioritizes this type of learning enough to break from ‘regular classroom studies.’ I wonder, however, if there are ways that schools with smaller budgets and tighter schedules can incorporate some aspects of ‘ExploWeek’  into their school culture.

So do I… (Ed.)

Student Centred Breakdown

Travelling and spending time with family means a few weeks away from social media.

This is a moving guest post by Clive for my series on learning in different contexts.  It first appeared at his blog, Clive Sir, a month ago and he agreed to let me post it whenever I liked. As I’m still away from home and not writing posts, it seems like a good time to share it…

I had a chat with someone the other day, talking about teaching styles. It brought back memories of my time in India, circumstances when my student-centric approach broke down.

We had a lad I shall call Aneesh. About ten years old, he was the son of one of the traders down on the beach. The NGO I was working for had encouraged his parents to send Aneesh to school rather than have him work in their shop. For parents it’s never a case of simply finding a public school to take their children. They have often missed so much schooling that the kids fail the admissions tests. Families are then, usually, left to their own devices to seek private education. In families where little importance is attached to education, where the cost of books is significant, and where the child brings in some income, they mostly don’t bother.  My organisation had its own school and provided books, transport, food and clothing, totally free of charge. It paid parents a small fee to compensate for lost income and the children received a small allowance for each day attended, as an incentive. The idea was that they would be brought up to speed over a year or so. The organisation would then fight to get them placed in mainstream publicly-funded school, while continuing to support them by covering all incidental costs. The parents would justify it in terms of doing the organisation a favour: by supplying their children in return for some money the NGO could continue to exist.

Aneesh was a real character. Highly popular with his fellow students, he was always making them laugh. Somehow, miraculously, the organisation got him immediately placed in a local English-medium public school. Maybe because he bluffed his way in or for some other reason, whatever, he got in.

The policy was that all such kids would come back to us for tuition after the school day. Being one of our “tuition kids” had several advantages: we would get to hear how they were doing at school and what they were struggling with, so we could then focus on the weak areas. Coming from poor families, these children were frequently bullied; by giving them the opportunity to talk about it we could try to do something to help, even if it was only to take them back into our day-time school. Finally, home environments were often not conducive to studying or doing homework, maybe because there was no table or space or light, but sometimes because of abusive family members; a few hours in afternoon tuition meant the children got some necessary support.

Anyway, Aneesh struggled badly in all subjects and eventually I was assigned to help him. Language wasn’t a barrier – he and I could communicate quite effectively because his spoken English was good, most likely a result of speaking with tourists in his shop. I concentrated on maths and computing with him and I quickly discovered that he was only surviving because he was copying his neighbours’ work. His friends didn’t mind because he was amusing, always acting the buffoon and mucking about but, in the strict, Victorian-disciplined day school he now found himself, he was no longer getting away with it.

After a week he told me that he was really worried about an imminent computing exam. I had a look at his text-book – it was essentially a learn-by-rote work-book, typical of the way many Indian kids learn.  It was pretty dreadful, expecting kids to simply repeat unexplained words and phrases. I could do better. With only a few days till the exam I decided that the most effective way to get him to grasp the concepts was to work one to one, discussing and explaining the things to be covered, and trying to encourage questioning, thinking and understanding. He actually seemed to improve so I thought he’d stand a chance of doing reasonably well.

Aneesh sat it and got his marks back almost immediately. He was very weepy when he showed them to me. What stared out from the sheet, in big, red letters, was “3/25″. Worse, the teacher had written down the page:

“V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V. Bad.”

I didn’t count them – I was too dismayed. There were probably more. I guess that gives you an idea of the quality of teaching some Indian children encounter.  Teachers are not all like that, of course, but the existence of even one is one too many. Pure punishment. Where were the gentle words of encouragement?

After I had calmed down I thought about it some more. What I hadn’t realised was that firstly, in all likelihood, the teacher didn’t understand his subject. He was lazy and was playing safe by following the work-book to the letter. Secondly, the exam followed exactly the same format: words had to be memorised and quoted verbatim. There was no leeway and any understanding was incidental. It didn’t matter what “input” meant, it just mattered that that was the word to be fitted into the blank.

I blame myself. I should have known. I hadn’t made the connection. If I had spent time getting Annesh to repeat and regurgitate the words then he would have passed the test. Educationally a meaningless test, but that was lost on Aneesh and he was the one who mattered.

My recommendation was that Aneesh should be taken out of that school and brought back to us. He was just too weak and had way too much ground to make up. Management didn’t see it like that, driven by the belief that the public school was an opportunity not to be wasted. Perhaps he was better in other subjects but I doubt it. I questioned my ability to help any of the Tuition Kids because I saw no value in working like that. Aneesh was taken away from me and given to a more conventional teacher. They persisted for a few months until after I left India. I heard through the grapevine that he eventually returned to the NGO’s school where he would have received the nurturing he so needed.