This is going to be tough & I petted a cheetah

I petted a cheetah today. It came and laid itself down in front of us and our guide said we could come over and pet it.

I did.

It was strange.

Two of our hosts on the ground here in Eastern Cape took us to Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve today. It was amazing. Given the possibility of jetlag, movement was impressive.

While the nature was impressive, it was part of the conversation at lunch that began, again, to put the situation in Eastern Cape in perspective.

Talking to Charles and Nobubele who head the e-Personnel for all of Eastern Cape Province, we learned:

– Eastern Cape has 6,000 schools.

– The province is broken into 23 districts.

– That’s about 300 schools/district.

– Ten percent of all schools have a computer lab (PC).

– If the other schools have information communication technologies (ICT) it consists of a laptop and a digital projector.

– Many times schools’ principals will lock up the laptops (sometimes in their offices) because they don’t trust their teachers with the ICT.

– In order to get a lab, schools must put the infrastructure in place for the labs. That means everything from the tables to the power supply.

– One school received 30 computers but had power for 15.

A person begins to have perspective on what it means to work with educators here on building capacity for the integration of ICT in education.

You can take your cute workshop on digital storytelling and shove it or throw it or delete it or whatever-verb-you-choose it.

The new old ways of thinking don’t apply here.

New new ways of thinking are what are needed.

Working on that.

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When does the game change?

 

05 August 09

When Dan Otedo was talking to our team about what he’d like us to do whilst we’re here working with teachers from Suba, he said, “Inspire us.”

No small order.

We’ve attempted to include some sort of “wowza” factor each day using a tool that’s within reach to the teachers here. To put “within reach” into perspective, on the news last night, it was announced that non-urban areas would be experiencing planned blackouts starting tomorrow from 6 AM to 6 PM because there’s not enough water to power the country’s hydroelectric plants. (The news announced that the blackouts would be two days each week starting Thursday, but left one to wonder what the other day might be.)

Today, we showed them Skype.

We’d tried the North American ubi-tool in South Africa with a 50 percent success rate. Knowing the likelihood of Kenyan wireless modem bandwidth being enough to support video or even audio chat, I opted for good ole’ text chat.

When we started here at around 8:30 AM, it was 1:37 AM on the east coast of North America. Still, Dean Shareski was awake (I don’t know why). Tyrone (an SLA student) was also online, and Chris Lehmann popped on after a plea on twitter(I love my principal). The team assembled, the exchange was interesting.

My workshop today was on using cooperative learning in the classroom, so I asked what our guests considered collaboration’s role in learning to be:

Chris Lehmann: 08:42:11

    Simply put — it means that your idea and my idea are both made better for their interaction.

Dean Shareski: 08:42:13

    Collaboration is the connecting of ideas and information with human beings. We used to just call it research.

Sharon Peters: 08:42:42

    Some called it cheating

Dean Shareski: 08:43:02

    I cheat everyday.

Tyrone Kidd: 08:43:02

    it can be.

Chris Lehmann: 08:43:05

    cheating, to me, is when person takes another person’s ideas without contributing anything.

I have to tip my hat to Chris for this last one. One of the things I’ve been bringing up over and over again here is the proposition that, if I share an idea with you, then you don’t really own it until you add to it.

A few minutes later:

Sharon Peters: 08:46:05

    question from a teacher: What do you know about Africa – Kenya in particular?

Tyrone Kidd: 08:46:22

    Not much

Chris Lehmann: 08:46:23

    Honest answer: not enough.

Dean Shareski: 08:46:35

    not much. Our view would likely be very stereotypic

Dean Shareski: 08:46:46

    This is why Skype and tools like it matter….

Dean Shareski: 08:46:56

    to be able to learn from and with all of you

Chris Lehmann: 08:47:07

    Much of the knowledge I have of Kenya beyond what I learned in school and what I see in the media is from the people I’ve met.

Tyrone Kidd: 08:48:13

    I really don’t know much about  Kenya. Would love to learn about it though.

(That’s why I love our kids.)

I was hit most, though, by two things.

1) The ability to connect and communicate in this way could will be a game changer. That goes for Kenya and North America as well. If Michael Malone is correct in The Future Arrived Yesterday and the second and third million participants in the global marketplace are about to arrive, both sides need to start having much deeper conversations about what it’s like to be us.

2) I have no idea when that game is going to change. Every school we visited last week was lacking electricity and plumbing. Two had generators, but no way to buy fuel. One could literally see the power lines, but was waiting for a transformer to be installed somewhere down the line. When we asked about the timeline for the transformer’s installation, the teacher we were talking to rolled her eyes and said she’d been told within the year, but that they were working on “Africa time.”

When it happens, it’s going to be overwhelming. When it will happen, I know not.

‘Why do you care about special education?’

30 August 09

“When I go home and walk down the street, people treat me like a traitor. They say, ‘Why did you betray us and abandon the normal students.”

– Benedict, Special Education Teacher

Obalwanda Special School for the Mentally Handicapped

Mbita, Kenya

In Kenya, according to Mama Jane, it’s not uncommon for someone to answer an inquiry as to what her child is up to by responding, “He graduated from college but he couldn’t find a job; he’s a teacher.”

Calling or not, this doesn’t set the lights a’shimmering down the career path to education.

Thursday, we found things could be worse.

Anyone in education in Kenya will tell you that Special Education in the country has gone neglected. Having a child with special needs it seen by most to be shameful and as Jane was introducing us to the district’s newly minted coordinator of special education, she admitted sometimes you will find children who literally haven’t seen the light of day because of their family’s pride.

At Obalwanda Special School for the Mentally Handicapped, I met Benedict, the teacher in charge of the school’s integration program.

He was genuinely taken aback when I began peppering him with questions.

“Why do you care about special education?” he asked.

I explained that I had always taught in an inclusive classroom with students with disabilities who had been mainstreamed.

His surprise that I was interested as a “traditional” teacher and that I wasn’t a special education teacher trumped that of his surprise at my questions.

Benedict said he was responsible for the mainstreaming of 5 the school’s 43 residential students into classes at the primary school that shared both its grounds and its principal with Obalwanda. (When I say shared, I mean shared with a wire fence dividing both schools’ yards.)

It was going well, he said. The students were taking things more slowly than their counterparts, but they were doing generally well.

I asked how they were being accepted and Benedict said the stigma had been noticeable when the program started a year ago, but things were getting better.

Teachers had been the biggest problem, he said. “They won’t make time to talk about what the students need,” he said.

It’s sad some of the things I’m learning are international.

Benedict is doing good things, though, despite the many obstacles.

We weren’t there long, but I feel the same could be said for the Obalwandan faculty.

If only the teachers could enjoy a least restrictive environment, imagine what that would mean for their learners.

Education for All?

29 July 09

One of the benefits of our schedule here in Mbita has been the chance to visit and speak with teachers and learners before our workshops begin.

Wednesday, we made our visit official with an introduction to John Ololtuaa the District Education Officer (DEO) for the Suba School District.

Ololtuaa lines up nicely with his counterparts in the States. His office was adorned with hand-stenciled charts proclaiming data relating to all facets of running a school district – per pupil spending, mean test scores, administration organizational charts, graduation rates – everything you would expect.

Except.

Last year, 51,757 learners were enrolled in Suba district – a decent number for a moderately-sized community anywhere.

One hundred thirty-four of those 51,757 learners qualified for university.

That’s .2 percent of the total student population. 

Kenya’s is an exam-based educational system that would make NCLB run to a corner and cry like a small child.

Learners begin taking exams during Early Childhood Development (ECD) which can be in the form of coloring a picture. Sometimes, a friend Maresa explained to us, this will be over a period of three days where the learner colors a little until she’s tired. Then, she comes back the next day and does a little more, and so on. The big tests come in Class 8 (Grade 8 in the US) and Form 4 (Grade 12 in the US). The Class 8 National Exam determines if a student must remain in Primary School or if they can continue to High School. The Form 4 National Exam determines if a student is eligible to continue on to college.

This is where the exception revealed itself in the DEO’s office.

134.

Of those, 128 were boys.

Do the math.

The answer you’ll find is 6.

Six girls qualified for university intake last year from Form 4. That’s 4 percent of the learners qualifying for university intake.

Dan Otedo, Chairman of the Suba Teacher Guidance and Resource Center, explained that even from that limited pool, many would not have been able to attend because they couldn’t afford it.

Before our meeting with the DEO, Dan told me girls outnumbered boys in the beginning classes of primary school, but that those statistics reversed as the years went on.

According to the DEO’s charts, in the last 8 years, a total of 42 girls have qualified for university intake.

Mama Jane, whose home we’ve been staying in here, works in the local office of the Ministry of Education and oversees ECD in Suba reiterated what many of the teachers we’d meet Wednesday would explain to us.

The fishermen around Lake Victoria entice the girls with gifts of mandazi (a sort of fried doughnut, sanitary napkins, oils and lotions for their skins and various other insignificant sundries. These gifts come with promises of love and caring which often lead to the girls sleeping with the men. Not surprisingly, this often leads to pregnancy – but not always pregnancy. 

Charles, a medical anthropologist we met on Mfangano, one of the islands off the coast of Mbita, told us in straightforward language “the fishermen are killing these people.” Mfangano, where Charles had done his graduate research, has a population of 20,000 and a HIV/AIDS infection rate of 30 percent.

Though Kenyans everywhere are embracing the concept of “education for all” most schools charge annual fees for enrollment. This is to say  nothing of purchasing uniforms and the other pieces of education.

Because one is rarely ignorant of his own culture, parents of girls here will pay fees for their daughters to get a basic education, but stop because they determine it to be an unwise investment. If she gets pregnant, then all those years of fees are money down the drain.

Boys (and their subsequent inability to have children) are a smarter bet.

Toward the end of the meeting, when I asked about the district’s goals for the future, he said plainly, “We must empower the girl-child.”

Amen.

Someplace Like Home

28 July 09

The woman two seats across from me on our flight from SA to Kenya had these parting words, “Welcome to Kenya. Our roads are very bad.” 

She wasn’t kidding.

The roads from Masai Mara Tuesday to Mbita put even the most country of country roads of my youth to shame – both in duration and excitement.

Six hours into the trip, the breakfast we’d had back on the Mara was a distant memory and our stomachs began to digest themselves. We asked Steve, our driver, if there was somewhere we could stop and find something to eat in one of the towns we were traveling through. At this point, we had hit a stretch of tarmac and had grown mistakenly hopeful that it would hold out for the remainder of our journey. 

After two towns of Steve’s request that we wait for the next town where he was sure he knew of a restaurant, the team said no and we circled the town of Kissii until we stopped at a hotel Steve was determined to find.

We unloaded our jumbled bones from the van and found the lobby to ask if the restaurant was serving food.

The concierge who also turned out to be the server and waitress assured us that yes, they were serving food and we were in luck, it was American food.

I remember thinking two things: 1) Yea and 2)I wonder what the local definition of “American food” is. As it turned out, at least according to the hotel staff in Kissii, Americans eat a lot of cabbage.

We ate happily, though explaining why I had to rebuff the concierge/server/waitress’s frequent attempts at serving me chicken, beef and or sausage was a little tricky.

Then, we were on the road again.

I’d moved up to the front passenger seat to take in the full view.

This had unexpected results. The tarmac road ended soon after we left Kissii and we were back to off-roading on the road. Riding in the back of the van had been bumpy, yes. Riding in the front of the van was bumpy with the added bonus of my body bracing for each bump and at my foot pumping the brake I wished were on my side.

After 2.5 more hours of almost getting lost, but not quite, we met up with Jane who was to be our host mother for the duration of our stay in Mbita. We followed Jane’s car 45k more to her house with only the delay of the first tire puncture of our journey when we were mere kilometers from the house.

The luggage was unloaded, the spare was fitted and we were back in the car.

When we finally piled out of the van at Mama Jane’s home exhausted and dust-covered, we were ready for sleep.

Our NGO partners here in Mbita had decided it would be more enjoyable, not to mention authentic, to have a home stay experience rather than hiring a house or hotel. I have to admit, after a long day on the road, it was nice to be welcomed as family. Jane immediately took to calling us her new children and called her daughter Bettie and son Charles in Nairobi so that they could speak with their unexpected new brothers and sisters.

If nothing else, I know I’m enjoying being referred to as “the last born” and “the baby.”

Somehow, it makes this place thousands of miles from my family feel a little more like home.

To the Island

18 July 09

Nelson Mandela is 91.

Prior to arriving in Africa, I’ll admit, Mandela was really one of the few national icons with whom I was familiar. Even that knowledge wasn’t appreciably deep.

Having had a few weeks in Cape Town and traveling within the province of Western Cape, I’ve gained a better understanding of what this man has meant to his country and what he continues to represent.

One of the things that strikes me about driving or walking through the townships or working with educators in their schools here is the air of hope I can’t help but breath in. The people I’ve met have hope and faith that their schools will improve and provide stronger, more connected educations for their learners.

Yes, they will admire their problems with the same rockstar status of any other group of teachers I’ve met, but when all’s said and done, they are hopeful.

More than anything else, Mandela embodies that hope.

This made visiting Robben Island, the prison island where Mandela spent 18 years of his life, on his birthday especially poignant.

I remember, as a teenager, watching Mandela’s release from prison, and knowing, but not understanding that something important was happening. It wasn’t until the boat ride on the Susan Kruger (the boat that first ferried political prisoners to Robben Island in 1961) that I started to grasp (if only feebly) the what it would have meant to be imprisoned for 18 years for holding onto an idea.

During each day of their imprisonment, the political prisoners on the island were forced to work 8 hours a day in one of the island’s limestone quarries. The stone was eventually used to pave the roads of the island and some of Cape Town. Initially, though, none of it was put to any actually use. It was meant as a soul-crushing exercise in futility.

What struck me, though. What truly hit home was the walk back to the prison from the quarry. Just over the rise at the pit’s mouth, Cape Town comes into view. As my tour group moved back along the same route, I imagined what it must have been like to toil purposelessly for 8 hours a day for 18 years and to return to your cell each day with a clear view of the home and country you love so much but to which you were forbidden to return.

In some ways, I wonder if South African teachers, if not many educators around the world, aren’t facing the same struggle – working each day for 8 hours for often unclear reasons only to come out of the pit at the end of the day feeling where they want to be is just as clear, but just as distant as when they they began.

I choose to believe the desperation is misplaced. Yes, we’ve a long way to go, but our own “long walk to freedom” is well under way.

Standing Long Jump

 

Part of the planning phase of our trip out here included the idea of facilitating a leap frogging of development of ICT skills and integration within Captonian classrooms. “Mistakes were made,” to quote Pres. Reagan, in our development of skills and integration techniques. What if we could help start the discussion here halfway through, rather than at the very beginning.

Do teachers need to learn PowerPoint, Excel and Word in a world of OpenOffice and Google Docs? Don’t start with the proprietary when you can jump to the free and/or transparent.

The last couple of weeks, though, have me rethinking that thesis for a few reasons.

1) Proprietary software and hardware companies are on the ground here selling their products and establishing early brand recognition and loyalty.

While I would rather all the players got a fair shake, it’s not as though Firefox is walking into schools and offering to set up labs or fund laptop carts. The drive to increase market share is pushing companies into schools down here and, like it or not, that’s getting the tools into the hands of the learners.

2) The connectivities not there to ensure freedom of search.

I know much of what I know about what’s available online because I have not only the time but the bandwidth and connection points to graze the interwebs for new information, tools and thinking. That’s not necessarily the case here. Be it download caps, narrow bandwidth, lack of access or whatever, the freedom of search isn’t provided for a wide enough segment of the online population. Google Docs are just as cool, but not nearly as useful if your computer lab is still running IE6. If someone has described every problem as a nail, all you want is a hammer.

3) A natural technological evolutionary path might exist.

My ability to function in ActivStudio, WordPress, Wordle, et al. is owed to the fact that, like it or not, Windows was my primer. Proficiency with Windows 95 on my family’s old Gateway 2000 provided me with a familiarity and ease of navigation once I moved to OS X or Ubuntu. If today’s tools are the result of a technological evolutionary pattern, it’s beginning to make sense that mastery then innovation then creation of the next tools will require an initial understanding of the basic architecture and then a following of the natural progression.

Given the thinking above, I’m still holding out hope that meeting the original goal is possible. Given the proper resources, the development of ICT skills and integration can experience a mutation and jump along the evolutionary path.