We connect as human beings…

Imagine a middle-aged teacher in Australia singing a song together with a group of bubbly kids in an urban slum in Hyderabad, India!

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you’ll know about the SOLE (Self organised learning environment) project and you’ll have read about some of my interactions on Skype with kids in India. There were no sessions for a while due to reasons which remain a mystery to us. Often the cloud mediators will wait online in the hope of an interaction, never knowing whether the reason for a no-show is a holiday or exam time or there’s no internet connection.

But they’re back! It never ceases to amaze me how much fun I can have with a group of kids so very different from the eleven year olds I teach here in Melbourne. Most of them have very limited English. Yesterday’s was a delightfully enthusiastic group of chattering girls, who are regulars at the SOLE, a room with computers, next to their school. This was our second interaction and they were excited to chat with me again. As usual, they vied for the ‘front seats’ at the computer. Neha took control, probably because her English is a little better than the others. There were also Thaseen, Atiya,  Zakiya, Jabeen and a few others who came and went in the background.

They speak little English and their background couldn’t be more different from mine, but we connect as human beings and I love that. We laughed a lot. We made faces. We sang together. I showed them how to fold an origami dog. I’m not sure whether they knew it was supposed to be a dog, but they loved it anyway and it kept reappearing in front of the camera as we chatted. They told me they learn Urdu at school, so I asked to hear what it sounded like and they spontaneously recited a poem in chorus! They also sang a song in Hindi, but the highlight was the English song we could sing together. They finished each presentation with a theatrical series of thank yous. I clapped, they clapped, we laughed some more. They taught me to say thank you in Urdu (shukria) and in Hindi (dhaniyavath).

Every experience I have influences who I am as a teacher. I know I learn as much from these sessions as the kids do. So I find myself imagining such interactions between my own students and these children. I wonder what learning they would take away…  A small attempt last month was very successful. Let’s hope we can get around the time difference and make further connections possible.

Letter from India…

Series on Learning in Different Contexts #3

I often blog about how excited I am at flattening classroom walls and creating opportunities for meaningful global learning. I wrote recently about my mentor group for our PYP exhibition unit and their Skype conversation with Raj in India. Max, one of the students in the group, emailed Raj afterwards with a couple of final questions to round off his understanding of education in India. He wondered if Raj could tell him about his own school experiences and compare them to his son’s education.

Within a couple of days, we received 12 emails with different perspectives on schooling in India! Raj had asked friends and colleagues of varied ages and backgrounds to describe their schooldays and compare them with education in India today. What an interesting collection of primary sources to enrich learning for the students and bring their inquiry to life! This post is one of  them…

Guest post by Jaya, a user experience designer at Zoho Corp, Chennai

I went to school in the rural parts of  Tamil Nadu – my native village, until my 5th standard. It was a typical government school, classes under the tree and small rooms. My class teacher was a tenant in my house, so imagine my freedom at school. I could go when I wanted to and rest otherwise – No questions asked. It went on this way till I was in first standard.

When we moved to the nearby town, I joined a new school – a private one but still in Tamil medium. English medium schools were then definitely for people with educated parents.  The school that I joined was supposedly a premium school, running for more than 40 years in the same place, managed by an elderly couple. We had the school food (government provides free food) every day, did all teacher house work,  sweeping and folding their clothes. But it was not imposed on us, we did it as fun! It was a privilege to know that teacher would drink water which I fetched for her. No restrooms, only the school compound wall for your natural calls – one side of it for boys and other for girls!!

I knew c-a-t in my third standard and knew that there existing vowels in English in 5th standard. But we wereintroduced to a lot of Tamil reading. We even had a small playground. Near our compound, an old lady would be selling all exciting eatables like raw mangoes and amlas  as per the seasons. No pressure, no homework, no ranks systems, not much of tests, no failures even. We used to have a reading session after meal everyday, and I still remember how mesmerized we would be listening to the other person reading the book. We would wait for our chance! One teacher handled two classes and almost every subject, don’t ask me how and worse still, two classes shared the same room too.  It reminds me of J.Krishnamurti’s  school philosophy where they do not divide classes based on the kid’s age, it is like varied age groups sitting in the same classes, for at least a few sessions. I am proud we were doing this in our village itself, even if it was due to space and people constraint.

After fifth we moved to Chennai and joined an English medium school. It took some time to adjust to the new area, new friends, new school… Wearing shoes and carrying a huge bag were few of our shocks. We me and my sister) rather took it as a challenge. We used to get very low marks, handwriting so poor, and I remember kneeling outside the class too. I used to fail in English till my 8th standard and obviously get the first mark in Tamil. After 9th, I think something changed, not sure what, it was probably our attitude that paid us. We were improving in all levels. No more failures in English, no more shy and timid person. I became the third rank holder and somewhat identified as an intelligent girl.

Education in India now is so different, urban schools compete with one another for name and fame, students and money. I think we have moved to a complex mode of education. There is lot of competition, lot of expectation from parents. I do not think that my father even knew how much I was scoring in school, but nowadays parents are expected to memorize the child’s syllabus. I actually want my child to enjoy school rather than study. I want him to have pleasant experience! I do not pester him to study or put pressure to excel, which my parents never did to me.

My education was not just with books and classes but everything other than that.  I am glad that I had it this way, because I realize that without it I would not be what I am today!


Just kids talking to kids…

If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know about my interactions with disadvantaged kids in Hyderabad via Skype as part of the SOLES and SOMES project. If not, you can read about it here.

More recently, I blogged about our  PYP exhibition, the group I am mentoring and their inquiry into access to education in developing countries,  particularly India.

This week brought a  meeting of the two!

I suggested to my group that they email Suneeta from SOLES and see if she had any ideas for the action component of their inquiry.  As it turned out, she had a great idea and they called her on Skype to discuss it. She is currently working with the Kelghar organization in Pune, whose motto is ‘education for the deprived’. Khelgar provides activities  for children who live in a slum area named Lakshminagar at Kothrud, Pune.  Suneeta asked my students if they would like to interact with kids from the Kelghar project.

By whatedsaid | View this Toon at ToonDoo | Create your own Toon

Today was the day. There was Rajendra, Anil, Amar and Maya.  They don’t speak  English, but Suneeta was happy to be the interpreter. She explained that some of the children who come to Khelgar only started going to school in Year 5, due to economic reasons, being children of migrant labourers who were often on the move, or the fact their parents don’t value education. In some rural areas it is hard for children to attend school because they live too far from schools.  They were thrilled by the idea that the Aussies could talk to kids in another country (them!) as part of their school learning and wondered at the fact that our kids have continuous internet access at school.

This was an eye-opener for my  privileged group who have been at school since the age of 4 and take for granted the excellent facilities  at their disposal. The Indian kids were amazed to hear that we only have 24 kids in a class. There are 24 girls in their class and then approximately 40 boys as well.  This group only attends school in the afternoons as there are too many children in the class to fit into the room, so the school day requires two sessions.

The most delightful thing is, that despite differences in language, culture, economic situation or educational opportunities… kids are kids. They exchanged information, laughed and sang to each other. As soon as it was over, they asked if they could do it again!

Learning at its best…

I blogged last week about our coming Year 6 PYP exhibition, a culmination of learning throughout the primary school years. The central idea of the unit is: Social inequities create  a need for action in the world.

Max, Gigi and Casey, whom I am mentoring, have chosen to explore access to education in developing countries, focusing on India.  My role is to support them in the inquiry process, encourage and guide them, help them find resources and take the pressure off the class teacher a bit! We meet a couple of times a week to discuss their findings and clarify further direction.

Today they gathered some interesting new information from primary sources. The first Skype conversation was with Clive , an engineer turned teacher, who’s volunteering in Sri Lanka teaching teachers to use computers. He told the kids about his work and that of the organisation he works under, and was able to make comparisons with India as he volunteered there too.

Later in the day they spoke to Raj, in India. He was happy to answer their questions comparing city education to that in villages, as well as gender related issues. When Raj explained that in many cases it’s more important for families to get their daughters married off than for them to be educated, Casey voiced aloud her wondering : ‘Why is there pressure for women to marry and have families, when there are so many people in India already?’!

Flat classroom

I am really excited by the ways education has changed over the years! (especially since we became a PYP school) I am excited about the fact that primary school children are developing global awareness and a social conscience.  I am excited about the fact that learning today (in my school, at least)  is relevant, challenging and engaging. I’m excited about breaking down classroom walls and the incredible learning that can take place through global interactions,  so easily via Skype. And I’m excited about the power of the internet to make meaningful connections between people who otherwise would never have met!


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!


Below the tip of the iceberg…

Culture is often compared to an iceberg which has both visible  and invisible  parts. The tip of the iceberg represents the elements of culture which we can see, such as food, language and customs. Those elements which are less obvious, such as values, beliefs and world view, comprise the much larger portion of the iceberg underwater. We discussed this model recently when planning a Year 4 unit of inquiry on understanding other cultures.

In Desiree’s class,  students classified their questions about other cultures into ‘above and below’ the tip of the iceberg. They were surprised to discover that all their early questions related to the tip of the iceberg, but have gradually developed an understanding that there’s more to culture than the 3 F’s. (food, flags and festivals!)

To further support their learning, they have opportunities to interact with people of other cultures. Raj, his son Aditya and a colleague Deepali chatted with them and answered their questions live from Chennai, India via Skype last week. Next week they will Skype with Corinne in Japan. Another class will engage with students in New Zealand, some of whom are Maori and Pacific Islanders. (Remember the days when you could only learn about other cultures from books?)

After the session with Raj, students explored some differences and similarities. While Hindu beliefs and customs and the way of life in Chennai are very different from theirs, they found plenty of commonalities. We too have a festival of lights, we too eat traditional foods at festivals, we too have an interest in sport and in particular they could identify with the relationship between father and son!

I was reminded of a presentation by Ruth Van Reken at the IBAP conference. In her talk on inter-cultural understanding, she  suggested adding a third level to the iceberg, the qualities that make us human. She further suggested turning the model upside down. By starting with the human qualities, finding what we have in common, we can more easily relate to and connect with people of different cultures.

Rather than focusing only on the tip of the iceberg, we need to make this kind of understanding our goal in teaching and learning about other cultures!

100th post!

This is my 100th post and I dedicate it to my friend in India.  If not for his encouragement and support, I would never have started blogging! Here’s our story…

A year ago, I was exploring online cartoon programs to use with my class and discovered ToonDoo. It’s a wonderful tool for enhancing learning and encouraging creativity. (Also great for illustrating ideas in my blog posts!) There are endless possible ways teachers can use it to engage their students and learners  can use it for expressing their learning. I was pleased to discover that ToonDoo supports Hebrew, but wondered how to get around the possibility of inappropriate content as it’s a public site. Sure enough, ToonDoo offered a private secure option for schools called ToonDoospaces, which was just getting going at the time and we decided to participate in the beta trial.

The support was excellent as we figured out how best to make it work for us and we got exceptional personal attention from Raj, officially Product Manager but his business card calls him Chief Juggler! As we engaged in conversation on ToonDoo issues, he and I discovered several common interests. We are both interested in religions and languages and were interested to learn more about each other’s. My son and daughter in law were planning a year of volunteer work in India and I was interested to find out as much about this fascinating country as I could. We struck up a friendship and began to chat online about religions, about India, about languages and cultures and education.

Soon after that, Year 6 students at my school were learning about our Asian neighbors and Raj agreed to interact with them on Skype. He answered their questions about India in a most engaging way, responding personally to each child and involving them in a conversation. Teachers present were ready to have him on staff right away, due to his natural manner with the kids and his ability to make the information so accessible and easy to understand. Read more about that here. Next week he’ll be answering questions from our Year 4’s as part of their unit on understanding other cultures.

In December, my husband and I visited India to see our kids and gain a better understanding of the work they were doing there. To our surprise, Raj decided to come to Delhi for a day and meet up with us. We thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent with him and marveled at how well we got along, despite difference in age, religion, background, culture and language.  (Not really. His English is excellent).  Read more about that here and here.

We have since met again, in Singapore when I went with 2 colleagues to the IBAP conference and Raj was there exhibiting ToonDoospaces.  As my colleague Layla said, having Raj with us added a further dimension to our time in Singapore, as we saw things through his eyes and gained a new perspective. Raj has a son in primary school and he was interested to learn from us about the PYP and the way teaching and learning works in Australia.


Somewhere in between all this, it was Raj who encouraged me to blog. I didn’t think I had anything to say and I had no idea how or where to begin.  He helped me get started and was my first, somewhat critical reader.  And along the way he has offered, not just a different perspective on a range of subjects and experiences, but also encouragement and online technical support whenever I needed it for this blog.

And here I am now, part of the exceptional blogging conversation that exists between educators wordwide. I never expected to have any readers outside of my own school! I could never have imagined how much I would learn from blogging or how it would connect me with other educators.  I am an addict…

Update 17th October 2011: Since I am linking to this post today, I’ll add that I have since met Raj again in India and that he has further connected with students at my school for a range of inquiries in the past couple of years. He recently answered questions from a group of students about child labour in India. Earlier in the year he created a wonderful photo album of the Hindu thread ceremony to accompany his Skype sessions with Year 6 classes for their inquiry into coming of age ceremonies in other cultures. Soon he’ll be participating (hopefully with kids this time) in the Year 6 inquiry into our neighbours in the Asia Pacific…. again.

Teacher as learner… Sole session#3

Last week was disappointing, as the SOLE wasn’t online. I think it was a festival in Hyderabad, but no-one lets you know, you just turn up and hope you get a connection with kids!

If you haven’t been following my posts, this is part of the SOLES and SOMES project in India, where self organised learning environments have been set up for kids to access computers and the internet as well as to interact with mediators from other countries.  See sessions one and two.

Today the kids were back. Rehana, Saniya, Nusrath, Salma, Gazanfer and the rest. Plus a few new ones as well this time! They were excited to come online and see me, waved enthusiastically, shoving each other out the way to get a spot in front of the camera. Then came the crunch… while they could see and hear me, there was no sound from their end. I have read on the SOLES wiki that these sorts of things happen often. One mediator has struggled for weeks to connect with her group. Unfortunately, there’s nothing one can do about the unreliable connection, but make the best of it.

This is what I learned today…

  • The fact that I can be in Australia interacting live with less advantaged children in India is a miracle in itself.
  • I have to come to terms with the fact that connections won’t always be perfect, if we do connect.
  • Apparently these kids will be excited to see me and talk to me even if I can’t hear them!
  • It’s difficult to gauge responses when you can’t see faces. (a by product of screen-sharing on Skype to show things)
  • Calling people by their names creates an instant personal connection.
  • No matter what I prepare for each session, it never goes as planned.
  • I can gain just as much from these interactions as the kids I am interacting with.
  • Take nothing for granted.

Warming up…

Session 2: Soles and Somes

The kids were excited and chatted happily.  Usually all at the same time, so that hearing and following was difficult!  They were thrilled that I ‘remembered’ their names and could greet them one by one.  In reality, I had written them all down and sought assistance in how to pronounce them!  Everyone from last week came back plus a few more.  The technician who was present last week was at another SOLE this week and there was a different dynamic  with no adult present.  Or perhaps they were just more relaxed the second time around.  Several times during the session, they moved the webcam around so that my view was choppy or I found myself looking at the tops of their heads, a close-up hand or even the ceiling.  On the plus side, they figured out how to call me back when we lost connection and how to turn the video back on, when it went off a few times.  On my end, I have worked out how to share partial screen only, so that I can still see their reactions to what I show them.

Most of what I planned didn’t really work or was abandoned en route as it didn’t feel right.  I need to remind myself that this isn’t a class, and the plan doesn’t matter!  It’s about making a connection with these cute kids and what we can learn from each other.  They seem to relish the interaction with someone so different from them and I love the  opportunity to engage with kids in a setting so different from my usual one.  Already, after the second session, I am beginning to feel more comfortable and to see how, in spite of all the differences, they are in many ways just like the kids I teach.  There was one point at which we were simply making faces at each other (it started by accident) and laughing together… and one girl spontaneously said ‘You’re so nice, Ma’am’.  I’ll be back!