Contrasting conversations…

I’m a huge admirer of the work of Sugata Mitra, as you will know if you read this blog. It was great fun today to talk to a class in Hong Kong… and Sugata himself! As an e-mediator with the SOLE and SOME project, I was asked to do a session with this group as part of a demonstration for teachers there to see the possibilities of such global interactions.

The class of extremely well behaved, somewhat formal 12 year olds, sat quietly and watched as small groups came up to the camera to talk to me. They introduced themselves politely one at a time and answered my questions about their school subjects, their hobbies and their interests. They respectfully asked a few questions and, with some encouragement, sang their school song. These students are clearly from well-to-do homes, as many have travelled extensively and some have even been to Australia. When I asked what they thought the similarities and differences between our countries might be, they thoughtfully expressed their ideas. They all speak Mandarin and Cantonese and most of them spoke very good English. Although I had a problem with screen sharing (I hadn’t practiced with the latest version of Skype), it was easy to engage them in conversation for about an hour. They were interested to hear that at my school, we use Skype for interactions of this sort as part of class learning.

No sooner had the conversation ended, then I had a call from one of the SOLEs in Hyderabad. There was lots of activity and noise in the room as kids came and went. The usual core group of girls stayed at the computer, chattering cheerfully. I have been away for a while and they seemed excited to see me, waving, making faces and all talking at once, mostly in Hindi! Much of the conversation (if you can call words and short phrases a conversation!) was typed, as the background hubbub made it hard to hear and anyway we use text to support the communication and help overcome accent and language barriers. It was Thaseen’s birthday and she was wearing a glitering red and silver dress and distributing chocolates to her friends. I asked about their birthday traditions and they told me she was having a party for friends and relatives and there would be cake but not gifts. We sang happy birthday, they clapped for themselves and laughed at me pretending to eat the proffered chocolate, mimicking the expressions on my face. I showed them how to fold the wrapper into a boat and while this modeling and copying was going on, more kids appeared and told me their names, talked over each other and redirected the camera to themselves.

I caught up with Rodger, another Australian e-mediator for a few minutes afterwards…

[7:12:01 PM] Edna: hi rodger
[7:12:17 PM] Edna: did you talk to HK too?
[7:34:29 PM] Rodger M: yes… how was it?
[8:06:45 PM] Edna: very different than the indians!
[8:07:02 PM] Rodger M: yes… much better english …
[8:07:15 PM] Rodger M: and much better communication quality
[8:07:27 PM] Rodger M: but more reserved and formal
[8:07:41 PM] Edna: and better off, well travelled… quite a few had been to Aus
[8:07:52 PM] Rodger M: yes .. quite different
[8:08:02 PM] Edna: then i had a bunch of noisy jiya kids with poor english… more fun!
[8:08:15 PM] Rodger M: yes 😀
[8:08:20 PM] Edna: lots of laughing
[8:08:47 PM] Rodger M: yes … just being themselves
[8:09:19 PM] Rodger M: 🙂

Contrast makes life interesting…


Mutual learning…

Summer holidays are over in Hyderabad and yesterday was my first Skype session in some time, with the kids at Madina Creative School.

There were about a dozen 10 year olds, half of whom were familiar from the earlier experimental sessions before the summer and the rest were new faces. I blogged here and here and here about my earlier experiences and what I’d learned from them. This time I went in unprepared and with no expectations. I wasn’t even sure whether there would be kids online since it’s their first week back at school.  Fortunately there was power and a connection and sound  and video. Often these are not things things that can be taken for granted! I felt more confident this time than in my first few sessions in February/March, when I didn’t know what to expect and nothing I prepared seemed to work. I chatted recently on Skype with one of the other mediators who has more experience and she reassured me that I was on the right track.

These are kids with limited English and no exposure to people of other cultures in other countries. They chatter all at once, sometimes in their own language. They don’t always understand when I ask them something and I can’t tell if it’s the language or the content that’s the issue. But they can smile and I can smile. They can make faces and I can make faces. They are as excited to interact with me as I am with them. Already we have a connection! (In a previous post, I wrote about turning the cultural iceberg upside down … )

Calling each child by name and speaking to each one individually makes a huge difference, for a start. There was Saba with the cheeky expression, vying to be in front of the computer, Nusrath and Rehana eager to have their turns to talk,  Moshim a little naughty, making faces close to the webcam , Mainaaz who’s   new and a bit overwhelmed, Saniya peeping from the back at this strange foreign lady (me!). I tried to ask what they had done in their holidays, but they didn’t seem to understand. I fared better with my questions about their first  days in Class 6. They told me they had classes in English, Maths, Science and Social Studies. They said they liked to draw and had drawn maps of India that day. In English they ‘learnt hard words’. Most of this was conveyed without any full sentences. Just a word or phrase, sometimes they typed something…  and I put the pieces together.

The highlight was when I folded a piece of paper concertina style and cut out a string of paper dolls, especially when I labeled them Saba, Rhenana, Moshin…

They said they would bring scissors and paper next time so I can show them how to make them too.

I know I get as much out of it as the kids do.  So much to learn!


The kids in Hyderabad…

I’m used to interacting with children.  I’ve been a teacher for so long and a mother, aunt, great-aunt, friend… I know how to talk to kids of all ages and find it easy to relate to them.

So I went into my first Skype interaction with the school children at the SOLE (self organised learning environment) in Hyderabad, quite confidently.  Suneeta had assured me that I didn’t need to prepare anything, just chatting would be fine this first time.

There were approximately 10 boys and girls, all delightful, polite and enthusiastic. Some came and went over the course of the hour, as the SOLE is a room with computers for the kids to work and play on in any way they choose.  As a mediator, my role is to talk with them in English, provide an opportunity for a different sort of  interaction than they would normally have, expose them to new things, encourage questions,  get them to engage further with the internet. This might be through songs, pictures, stories, searches or just talking.

It wasn’t as easy as I had expected! There were issues of language, accent, delay, everyone talking at once and background noise.  They happily introduced themselves but it was difficult for me to pronounce some of their names, even when they typed them too.  Because of the unfamiliarity of their names, I couldn’t retain who was who, so personal interaction was reduced. When I shared the screen with them to show pictures of Australian animals, I could no longer see their faces, so it was difficult to gauge their responses properly. When asked about themselves, they answered only briefly and I wasn’t sure if this was due to language or lack of interest.  After 40 minutes, I was beginning to sweat!  This wasn’t going the way I had imagined. I resolved to be better prepared next week, to bring more materials, to experiment with different screen sharing options.

But then I spoke to Suneeta and she told me the kids had very excitedly called her afterwards to share the experience! It seems that they had limited exposure to the internet, hadn’t had it all for some time, and that they had enjoyed our interaction.  When I explored the SOMES wiki, I read how frequently there is disappointment on both sides when the internet connection fails or Skype doesn’t work properly and there’s no video or poor sound quality. I found that others share the difficulties that I had and make adjustments accordingly.

It dawned on me then, that my expectations had not been appropriate. This isn’t a face to face conversation with children of my own culture and language.  I won’t be able to do the same sorts of hands on things I normally do with kids nor have that instinctive sense of what they are thinking that comes with working with kids for so long.  The first interaction was successful, but I have a lot to learn.