Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Growing Plants, Hearts, and Minds

It's the last week of school, and honestly I didn't think I'd be writing a blog post this week. Since I will be teaching science to 3rd-5th graders next year, I have been packing up the classroom I've been teaching in for the past 16 years in preparation for my move to the science room downstairs. Monday I did a presentation for our school board on the global service learning activities through which our students have been learning and how they connected to my recent trip to Kenya. I have 3 presentations that I need to prepare for ISTE next week, and a presentation at the University of London next month that needs to be finished before I leave for Philadelphia.  It's been a crazy end of the school year, but after what I experienced this afternoon, I knew that I had to take a few minutes to share.

One of our kindergarten teachers, Lizabeth Conklin, has been working this year to create a community garden at our school. The premise of her project is to have students at the school learn through gardening, and to use the school gardens to grow fresh produce for our local food pantry. Her hard work has resulted in national recognition and grant money which will allow the project to expand next year.

Since learning that I will be teaching science next year, I have agreed to partner with Liz to teach science concepts through gardening. In addition, we have found partners in Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Maine, New Hampshire, Luxembourg, and Nepal for a global garden project next year that will have each group of students sharing their learning through gardening with the others. As a teacher who believes that learning through service projects should be the backbone of what we do in school, I am very excited about the possibilities for this project.

Next to our school is a small building owned by our local Fair Association.  For most of the year it is rented out by the Devereux Foundation as an adult day care center for individuals with disabilities.


As part of the garden project, Liz had contacted the directors of the program and asked if we could put a small garden behind their building so that those in the program could help with the gardening.  Today, I went with her and a group of 5th grade students to help plant a few tomato plants in that garden.



As the students finished getting the plants in the soil, we saw that there was no water source available outside the building. Liz went inside to ask if anyone would like to bring water outside and help water the garden. The response was amazing.




Soon, the men and women from the Devereux were taking turns watering and chatting with our students. both groups were sharing their knowledge of gardening with each other, introducing themselves, and having a great time. It was such a wonderful experience for everyone. As I walked back to the school with the kids I could hear them telling each other how happy they were to be a part of building this garden and collaboration.

Over the next few years, our students are going to learn a lot of math, science, language arts, and other content through gardening.  And, that's wonderful.

But, they are also going to learn a whole lot more about topics that are a whole lot more important.

This is what school should be.




Monday, June 1, 2015

Teachers - Shaping Tomorrow(land)

This weekend we went to see Tomorrowland. As a family of Disney fans, we've been looking forward to seeing it for a while.

Image credit - disney.wikia.com
I walked away from the theater with tears in my eyes.  As far as plot, character development, special effects, etc. - the movie was good, but nothing special.  But it still took me a few minutes after the movie ended to be able to talk without getting choked up because of the message at the end of the movie. I'll do my best to not write anything here that will spoil the plot for you. If you haven't seen the movie yet, and you count yourself among the dreamers of the world who see the possibilities ahead instead of the doom and gloom, it'll be well worth your two hours.

I got choked up because I have made this my life's work - to develop the dreamers who will create a better tomorrow for the world. 

To pass on to the next generation the belief that each of us holds within ourselves the power to make the world a little better. 

To show students the power of wondering "what if...", and then helping them do what they have to do to find out.

To inspire other teachers to choose learning over content.

To connect those outside the sphere of formal education who are passionate about making the world better with students and teachers, and to allow those do-gooders to pass that passion to the world changers of the future.

Because passion is contagious. And, we need more of it.  Like "The black thing" in L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, negative emotions like hopelessness, despair, and inevitability are constantly trying to make us feel as though our passions are unworthy of our time. There is a lot to be afraid of in the future, and the world has a lot of problems.  

As teachers, we face this battle as well. We've been marginalized, suppressed, and disrespected. Many within our ranks have forgotten why they chose to teach and have started to believe that their job is to prepare children for a test at the end of the year. Yet, there is plenty of light pushing back against the darkness.

I get constant inspiration from other Skype Master Teachers who are using videoconferencing to inspire their students to make real, positive change in the world. 

Every day I see new messages on my phone from the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors sharing the amazing ways that they are developing the unique talents and passions of their students.

On Twitter and Facebook I see the way the other Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts from around the world are leveraging technology to bring amazing learning experiences to their students.

Posts from countless other educators on social media sharing the stories of their classrooms, teachers and students who are experiencing the joy of learning so that they can make a difference, give me hope that we are starting to move in the right direction.

And, I see the teachers in my school doing incredible things that are inspiring my own children and the others in the community to grow to love learning.

There is a bright future ahead of us.  Yes, there are big problems.  But there are also big solutions waiting to be found.

At the end of the movie, there is an implication that these solutions will come from dreamers who are scientists, artists, mathematicians, gardeners, dancers, social change agents, and a host of other passionate people.  And, they will. 

But, it will continue to be the teachers of the world who are leading the fight to develop those dreamers and to allow each student to find the spark within themselves that makes him/her want to leave a positive impact. That's what we do. That's what real teaching is.

Teachers are the window that allows dreamers to see the possibilities in their futures. The world's teachers are living Tomorrowland pins.

I feel lucky to count myself among them. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Interview with Kenyan Wildlife Service Educator Carol Mwebia

While at Lake Nakuru National Park I had the opportunity to ask Carol Mwebia, education director for the park, a few questions. My hope is that this interview can be used to spark learning for students at home and around the world.


Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Remembrance Day - Student Questions Answered

When our students at Wallenpaupack heard that I was going to have a full-day stopover in Amsterdam on my way to Kenya, and that it would be Remembrance Day, they had questions.  After reading a few articles on the holiday, they brainstormed a list of questions that they wanted answered.

Thanks to my Dutch friend Marjolein Hoekstra, we were able to help them learn the answers to those questions.  Prior to my stopover, Marjolein put together a OneNote notebook for the students with answers and reference material. The hope is that the students will now continue to expand this resource with new questions and answers so that it can become more comprehensive and be used as a learning tool for students around the world who are looking for this information.

In addition, Marjolein met me during my stopover to show me around the city and to record a short interview with me in which many of the students' questions were answered.  You can see that interview below.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 11 - Kwaheri, Kenya

I'm through secuturity at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport waiting for my flight to Paris that will connect with my flight to New York. I had thought that my last day was going to be relaxing and quiet, but like every other day on this trip, it was filled with pretty special moments.



We started by waking at 5:30, taking tea early, packing the van, and heading out on a game drive at 6:30.  The plan was to see as many animals as we could on the way out of the park while the morning light made for good pictures, and then hit the road for Nairobi.  Since it's only about a 2 1/2 hour drive, I had figured that we'd be in Nairobi by 10 or so.  Silly.  I should have learned by now that everything in Kenya takes at least twice as long as you anticipate. Pole Pole.



The game drive was amazing. We saw a few hyenas with a freshly killed ostrich carcass, and a baby rhino that was literally hours old.  We could still see the afterbirth hanging from the mother. A big gross, but very, very cool.  We saw lots of baboons, buffalo, zebra, and giraffes as well.  We didn't have any luck finding a leapard.






We passed out of the park gates around 8:30 and headed back to Nairobi.  About an hour into the drive, we stopped for a car wash since the van was filthy from driving on the paths in the park. Kenyan car washes are different than American car washes.  The car still ends up clean, but it's done by hand by guys with rags, and it took about 45 minutes.  We grabbed a quick snack and more tea before getting back on the road.





Jackson told me that he needed to stop to pick up potatoes for the Havilla school at a market on the way. When we stopped, we were immediately surrounded by a dozen or more vendors shaking their produce at us and banging on the windows. It took Jackson a while to figure out who had the best potatoes at the best price with everyone surrounding him like vultures. This is how it's done in Kenya. He, Livingstone, and I discussed the differences in the American produce purchasing experience when we got on the road 25 minutes later.


At the Great Rift Valley overlook we stopped for 2 minutes for a picture.  There were also a few souvineer shops there.  20 minutes later I was back on the road a few hundred Shillings lighter and loaded with some wood carvings I'm sure I don't need. The Shillings won't do much much more good than a zebra letter opener back home, so no harm done. Jackson got a free soda out of the deal for being the driver who stopped there while the Mzungu spent some money.





We hit a little traffic, and we finally go to the Cheery school around 1PM. When I walked into the school grounds, I was greeted with shouts of "Teacher Mike!" once again, and a few kids came running up to hug me.  That's a little humbling. I chatted with Director Jairus for a few minutes about ways we can continue our partnership in the future, and how the work I've done here over the past few weeks can be leveraged to help these children have the opportunity to overcome the abject poverty in which they are living.

After our chat, the older classes performed a few songs for me, and made me tear up by presenting me with Kenyan bracelets for my wife, my children, and me. I have mine on right now. It is a special memento of the time I had with these children.  Two students also wrote me letters of thanks that I will hold on to and cherish.





When it was time for me to leave, six or seven students held my hands, arms, shorts, and shirt as I walked down the rubbish, mud, and waste filled path to the van.  They didn't want to let me leave.  When I got in the van, several of them climbed into the back.  They wanted to come with me. It pained me to have to make them get out. With a sad heart, we drove away as I waved and blew them kisses.



From there, we drove to Havilla. I stopped into the classes I had worked with and asked them what they had learned this week.  They were also very happy to see me and to show off thier new knowledge.  The first graders told me about the English weather words they had learned in English class, and the second graders showed me the addition they were working on.  Before leaving, the school also sang me a song, the second grade performed a poem about the importance of education, and Head Teacher Domitilla presented me with a traditional Kenyan shirt.




When I left Havilla at 3PM I figured that I had a few hours to charge my electronics, take a shower, and relax before heading to the airport for my 11PM flight.  I chatted with Tracy and Ross from NGGE to catch up on the happenings of the week, and around 5PM I went on what was supposed to be a short walk with Ross.  He took me to an appartment building a few blocks away that overlooked the Kibera Slum, and then to a garden on the edge of the Slum.



At the garden we met Peter, a Kibera resident who is empowering the youth of the slum by teaching them gardening, catfish raising, and other trades.  With the products they sell, young Kiberans are able to make some money while learning important skills and improving the community. We chatted for as long as I could, and then he walked back with Ross and I to Barnabas's house telling us about his passions. He agreed to connect with our students back home to tell them about his work via Skype, and I told him that I would have Livingstone connect with him to show him how to offer learning sessions through Skype in the Classroom.  He is the kind of passionate do-gooder that is perfect for inspiring youth to get involved in service projects.






At 7, I said my goodbyes and loaded into the van with Jackson to head to the airport.  We picked up Livingstone on the way (he had walked home to shower earlier), and set off.  Of course, we hit a traffic jam, and the ride that should have taken 30 minutes took 90. The traffic lights in town were turned off, at every intersection there was gridlock, and there were a few cars stopped in the road. Kenya.

And so now, with both great sadness at leaving and great anticipation at seeing my family, I wait for my plane.  In typical Kenyan fashion, it took forever to get to my gate.  I had to pass through 4 security checkpoints where I my bags were either checked by hand or scanned though a machine.  I'm very sure this is going to be a safe flight.



I'll try and get some sleep on the plane to Paris.  Over the next few days and weeks, I'll be posting some of the many (60+) videos I took during the trip as they get uploaded.

Kwaheri, Kenya.  I leave a little piece of my heart with you and take much more than souvineers with me as I leave.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 10 - Distance Learning in Lake Nakuru NP


We woke up at 5:30 in order to get in a sunrise game drive.  We took tea and breakfast as the sun was coming up through the mist on the front porch.



Although many of the animals in the park are the same as those found in Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru National Park is a very different experience. The scenery and vegitation are different, so there are many more trees and bushes in which animals can hide.  We saw lots of giraffe, buffalo, zebra, and different deer during the drive.  We also saw the flamingoes for which the park is famous, many baboons with their newborn babies, a lion who had just killed a buffalo and was going back to alert her pride, and hyenas feasting on an animal carcass in a water hole.









Our Safari Van

Jackson Kanga, our driver, tour guide, and all-around good guy

Look, a lake!





The game drive ended at the park office where we met Milka, a Kenyan Wildlife Service employee who had helped us set up our stay at the Naishi Guest House, and also arranged for someone to give a recorded interview for students around the world about the park.  She introduced us to Carolyne, the park's education director, who drove with us down to the shore of the lake for the interview.

Using the GoPro camera, we recorded a great interview where Carolyne described the park's animals, the challenges faced by the park such as invasive species of plants and poaching, and how children around the world can get involved in conservation efforts.  I will post that interview on YouTube when I get home and have better upload speeds.





After the interview, we drove into the town of Nakuru to get supplies for dinner. Jackson and the two Livingstones told me that they wanted to get chicken for dinner. We picked up Groundskeeper Livingstone's friend in town and she and Teacher Livingstone went off to purchase chicken from a local market while Jackson, Groundskeeper Livingstone and I went to the supermarket for a few other things.  While we waited for them to return, we also went into a local shop and I picked up a few souvineers to bring home.

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When I finished, we all piled back into the car in search of a quick lunch.  While driving to a place that sold chips (French Fries), I heard a clucking noise coming from under my seat which nearly made me jump out of the window because it was so unexpected.  Apparently, we bought a live chicken that Groundskeeper Livingstone was going to slaughter for dinner. I guess you can't get any fresher than that.


After a quick lunch back at the house, we set off for a second game drive equipped with equipment to connect with students in multiple locations around the world.  First, we found a nice location with many buffalo in the background to do a Google Hangout with multiple schools that got recorded directly to YouTube.  You can see that recording at the end of this post. The Cheery Children's Education Centre from the Kibera Slum, some students from my hometown in Pennsylvania, Beth Heidemann's kindergarteners from Maine, and Dyane Smokorowki from Kansas participated in the call.  First we talked a little about the park for the kids, and then we took as many questions as we could until an incoming storm kicked us off the internet.

The storm passed fairly quickly, and we continued with our game drive.  Every time we came to a big animal and had internet, we found a school to Skype with live to share what we were seeing and to answer questions.  During a period of about 2 hours we showed giraffes, rhino, and buffalo to a few sets of kids in Massachusetts and zebra to Tanya Cunningham's kids in Pennsylvania. Sharing our experiences with kids so far away made it even more special.



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When you travel, and do it with an open mind and open heart, you grow as a person.  You take the best parts of the culture and location in which you are immersed and add them to yourself to make you better.  I've tried throughout this trip to do that for myself, and to share the best parts of the trip with others around the world as much as possible so that they can grow with me.  The calls on this last game drive felt like one more opportunity to do that.

When we got back to the house I actually sat and relaxed for the first time on the trip.  Teacher Livingstone and I sat on the front porch of the house, with water buffalo and zebra walking 20 yards away, chatting about the trip, teaching, and the importance of the work we are doing. This Naishi Guest House seems to be made for relaxing in an amazing setting. It was nice to reflect, and I feel both great sadness to be leaving tomorrow as well as a great longing to see my wife and kids again.


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Look carefully, those are zebra in the front yard
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For dinner, Jackson cooked up a traditional Western Kenyan meal of Ugali kwa kuku masala na spinach (Ugali with masala chicken and spinach).  He cooked the whole chicken.  Literally.  Other than feathers, there was nothing that didn't go into that pot. Teacher Livingstone explained to us that the key to good eyesight was not carrots, but rather eating eyeballs as he gobbled one down. Dinner was very good, though, and I went for second helpings of ugali with the sauce from the chicken.
As dinner was being made, Teacher Livingstone put on some music from my iPad.  Here's what I learned - He likes Michael Jackson, found out that the Beasty Boys are awesome, and said that Simon and Garfunkel are very nice on the ears.  He didn't know most of the music on my playlists, and had never heard of Janet, even though he was familiar with Michael.

After dinner, we sat around a nice fire in the fireplace that Groundskeeper Livingstone had lit for us. The house is so beautiful, relaxing and quiet, and like every other place I've been on this trip, I wish I had more time here.

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Tomorrow, we get up early for a morning game drive out of the park, and then back to Nairobi where I will visit both Cheery and Havilla to say goodbye to the kids, and then off to the airport for a 11PM flight home.  I can't wait to see Lori, Abby, and Michael.

Here is the recording of the Google Hangout session mentioned above: