Sizing-Up the World

Over the past few weeks I have had the privilege to work with three third-grade classrooms in Essex, Vermont in developing a sense of cardinal directions, x-y axes and continents as part of a larger mapping project.   Seen here are third graders’ projects from Ms. Ford’s class, creating their own Compass Roses in Google Drawing, after a short introduction in the relevance of Compass Roses on world and local maps by the classroom teacher.  Then, I introduced Google Drawings.  The students loved keeping track as I demonstrated its 10 most useful tools.

The third graders in Mrs. Bacon and Mrs. Kitchen’s classes traced world continents, labeled, and cut out for placement in a world map on the classroom floor, including relative longitude and latitude comprehension.

Finally, we played a board game that I created using a grid (x,y) and cardinal directions, numbered dice, and cardinal directions dice, printed from my 3D printer.  I demonstrated the “rules” and then we broke into groups of four and asked the students to play the game and improve on the rules.  We gathered to share our modifications to the game to make it more fun and engaging.

Here is a link to a video of the children playing the game and using their knowledge of cardinal directions in their strategy.  My contact info for further information is: apius@ewsd.org or annepius6@gmail.com.

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Paying It Forward

It is with great pleasure that we welcomed an international exchange student from Argentina for the month of July.  The story of how we connected is simply serendipitous.

In summer 2013, I attended a small Google Apps for Education conference in Colchester, Vermont.  We were probably about 25 people in attendance.  We all had a voice and participated in the conversations.  Three people from Argentina stood out to me.  How in the world did they find this small conference in a rural middle school in Vermont?  The answer?  “We were visiting NYC, and this conference was close by.”

For the following two years, Fernando, a tech integrationist at a bilingual school system in Cordoba, Argentina, worked collaboratively with me and my tech team at Essex Town School District.  We carried out collaborative projects and held many, many Mystery Hangouts between our schools to the delight of the students and teachers alike.

In January 2016, I made bold to ask Fernando if he could assist in finding a volunteer opportunity in medicine in his town for my fledgling 20 year-old daughter, who was delving into medicine.  We held live Hangouts together in which he promised that my daughter could come “as another daughter” to experience and exchange in Argentina. I felt the trust and so within short order, we had booked a three week trip to Cordoba.  The short story is that with Fernando’s help, the support of their family, and an amazingly welcoming daughter (Lucre), my own daughter had the immersion experience of a lifetime with an Argentinian family and a shadowing experience in the surgery room of a public hospital, the gory details of which could be completely divulged in a subsequent post…

This experience changed her life.   My daughter has just now applied to med school with the dream of becoming a surgeon.

My appreciation was inexpressible.  I wanted so much to reciprocate and host Lucre here in the USA to return the favor.  Eighteen months later, Lucre arrived, glossy-eyed, but ready for adventure.  She got the whirlwind tour of Vermont as well as jaunts to NYC, The Hamptons, Lake George, Saratoga Springs, Lake Ontario, Boston and Montreal, QC CANADA.  My efforts to share culture, customs, food, geography and history were appreciated many-fold by Lucre.  She was undemanding, gracious and appreciative… just the way I like it!

Intrigued?  Trust your instincts and support sharing culture around the globe.  Make a world of difference in a youth’s life.  The reward and returns are immeasurable.  Certainly Lucre and my daughter will pay it forward in kind.

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Connecting Around the Globe

In my own social and professional circles, I am famously passionate about culture and making connections around the world.  Since 2010, I have been an active participant in Postcrossing.com whereby there is an exchange of postcards between random users around the globe.  I have exchanged 3600 postcards during this period.  For every postcard I receive, I followup with a little research on the country, customs or geographical location from which the card was sent.  Sometimes there is a short discourse with another “Postcrosser” as we ask/answer questions about the card or the region where we live.  This site connects me with like-minded people who value cultural exchange and learning. A few years ago, I asked a Mexican Postcrosser if she would like to do a private swap.  I could sense her upbeat personality and thought that my daughter would want to receive a card written in Spanish.  This simple request blossomed into cross-continent exchange, and ultimately two visits to each other’s countries.  Here you can see Rose as a third grade class visitor as a “mystery reader”.  Next is a photo from the coast of Maine.

Meanwhile, I have established long-term pen pal relationships for the students in my school.  We have connections in New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan and Russia.  We have a small group of students for each exchange who meet with me to read their letters and compose a connected response.

The students love this extracurricular activity.  I include cultural videos (shared with me) and global studies, followed by postcards to our pen pals.  All of these children feel so validated to be included in this activity.  This program is so straightforward to carry out, provided that you have educators who also believe in the importance of this program.

The Power of Play

Recess is a highly prized time in the eyes of a third grader.  Last week on the playground, I encountered this group collaborating to create a snowman of human proportions.  The sweet, joyous voices filled the air while the students lost themselves in play.  I am a big proponent of the value of achieving flow while engaging in an activity (a theory proposed by James Paul Gee), whereby an individual is so engrossed, they cannot even account for the passage of time.  What a wonderful experience.

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Applying Ed Tech Theory into the classroom

In reflection, my Educational Technology course at Marlboro Graduate School has been enlightening in terms of understanding the roots and theories of educational technology in the classroom.  It has helped me hone in on the development of my personal folk pedagogy.  I see validity in many teaching and learning theories.  In fact, I can personally identify with most of them.  See this link to a slideshow explaining many learning theories.

  • First, I believe in learning by doing (situated learning).  
  • Second, I believe in teaching with schemas (learning a chunk at a time).
  • Third, I believe in Skinner’s theory of Behaviorism (learn with repetitive behaviors).  
  • Fourth, I strongly believe in Piaget’s Constructivism (build on experience) and
  • Fifth, Papert’s Constructionism (learning through interpreting change).  

I am incredibly fortunate that I had an elementary school as my palette for testing and proving these instructional and educational theories as I was learning about them.  Here are a few projects that I tested out.  Most projects utilize technology, others just a little, yet all are equally gratifying and engaging when designed well.  

Third grade Pen Pal Exchange with New Zealand students.   Within my Postcrossing.com circles, I made a connection with Allison, an educator in New Zealand.  Before diving into letter composition, I met with the students to give them a starting point of reference in making a connection with another student.  We discussed the globe, the continents, and found New Zealand.  As a group, we visited the school virtually to check out its Facebook presence, its website (not as interesting) and utilized Google Maps street view to see it up close.  The children had many great questions about the NZ such as Why do they have bare feet?  How come the seasons are different from ours.  Are they sleeping right now?   Here we used Backward Design Theory.  Our overall goal was for the students to compose a meaningful, connected, neatly written letter.  Since it was their first time writing a letter and connecting with a stranger, I introduced some culture, geography, and background information on the school and NZ.  Alison and I shared videos on our students reciprocal morning meetings in which the US students said the Pledge of Allegiance and the Kiwis (NZ peoples) said their daily Maori chant/prayer.  We then had discussions on how to compose a letter and make a connection with someone new.  The final step was to read their pen pal letters, and compose a letter in return.  (We did this twice).   December marked the end of the school year for the NZ students.  A new teacher is taking over in late January.  Our students want to continue this activity so very much.  We had a group discussion whereby we took notes and made points on why this pen pal relationship should continue. Many third graders felt compelled to speak to the camera to be part of this persuasive video. As an assessment tool, this video shows the sincere engagement of the project, plus the fun and patience required to participate.

https://www.wevideo.com/embed/#798605116

Success Block – 6 weeks.  Third to fifth grade teachers in my school participate in Success Block.  This special block of time (among teaching teams), allows teacher to break into small groups for special in-depth inquiry or practice in LA, math, or other core topics for students needing the boost.  There are always some students to ‘test out’.  The teachers then ask me or other tech staff if we can take a special group for 30 minutes, 3x/week, 6 weeks.  The goal is that the student will gain basic knowledge of coding and procedures and be able to accomplish blockly-like coding challenges.  I chose to do a coding sequence, starting with Light Bot, continuing to Code.org Courses, then Dash and Dot Robots, and finally wrapping up with BitsBox (intro to JavaScript).  Sometimes, we branch into Scratch programming as well.  My challenge of course is to accomplish this in the lightning-fast 30 minutes sessions!  This ‘course’ presents elementary coding challenges using learning theories such as Behaviorism, Constructivism.  Self-paced learning and the ARCS Instructional Design Model.   I find that the students love the challenges, unexpected rewards, positive outcomes for effort, and self-confidence – all while gaining procedure and coding skills.  

Special Project – Global Webquest for flags with fourth and fifth graders.  There are ‘mandates’ in our ETSD curriculum and our school district’s “Ends Policy” to include culture, geography and global citizenship in the classroom curriculum.  This year, the principal asked me (and a few others) to take each classroom (20 of them) for one 40 minute session, while she met with groups of teachers.  Forty minutes?  Let’s make it fun, interactive, engaging and memorable, I thought!  The goal was to task students with finding a national flag in street view in a specific country somewhere on the globe.  The students would do a webquest whereby they would chose a random country (from a hat, of course), search for a flag image, and then use Google Maps to find the country, major city, and ultimately street view to find that country’s flag.  We met as a group first, to discuss likely places to find a flag and to model the challenge and the tools needed to accomplish this quest.  The learning theories I used here include:

  • Operant conditioning.   
  • Self-paced learning.  
  • Inquiry-based learning.  
  • Webquest learning.  
  • Flow Theory (James Gee).

Most of the students went back to the hat to pick out another country and try it again.  One boy exclaimed, “I went to five countries and found five flags!”  Exit (video) interviews prove that the goal was accomplished and the enthusiasm for the challenge unabated.

https://www.wevideo.com/embed/#810677020

As an educator, I use technology to facilitate learning, motivate students, and aid instruction.  Technology is a tool that is increasingly prevalent in our culture and the lives of our students.  In my opinion, when used purposefully and with intention, technology helps with retaining focus and continued engagement in a lesson or activity.  Today the internet provides wide educational resources.  Its use is what facilitates global inquiry and infusion of multiculturalism in the classroom.

Indoctrination complete?

Death of Fidel.  Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro died yesterday, on November 25, 2016, after 57 years of autocratic rule.  His revolution against capitalism began with the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1959. To quote Fidel, “The revolution is a dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters.”  Let’s see how that quote plays out in front of my own indoctrinated eyes, seeped in democratic rhetoric and tradition.fidel-2016

Been there. I am fresh from a first trip to Cuba three weeks ago in early November 2016.  Forced to (legally) visit Cuba on a “person-to-person” visa for the purpose of Social, Education and Historical reasons, I traveled with a large group of 38, led by a Cuban tour guide, who was well-indoctrinated in his communist party’s line.  I must admit that I saw some absolutely amazing historical sites such as the UNESCO Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s former house, old Catholic Churches from 1777, perfume ‘factories’, the cemetery (2.2 million buried), artist studios (Fuster), historical walks, visits to the Plaza de la Revolucion, live Salsa music, museums, and literally hundreds of Cuban propaganda papered across the city of La Habana (ranging from posters to building-sized faces of Fidel and his cronies.)  The trip was only 3.5 days long.  I saw real culture in the happy people, who lived with very little means.  I stayed in a ‘“casita” with owners who simply loved to talk and held no ill-will about the past 57 years under the Castro regime and the effects of the US embargo against Cuba.  In fact, so many Cubans are too young to know life in any other iteration.  culture21arts (3).jpg

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Crumbling infrastructure.  From the moment we stepped off the bus to meet our ‘house-mother’ of the casita, the crumbling infrastructure was an impediment.  It was impossible to drag a suitcase over the crumbling sidewalks.  Side roads boasted enormous potholes around which vehicles and pedestrians weaved.  Old Havana and its nearby Vedado neighborhood (with a slum in between and multiple Soviet architectural monstrosities punctuating the skyline) boast gorgeous Spanish colonial-style architecture that is literally falling from the facades to the sidewalk and caving in from the roofs and floors, due to neglect, humidity, age, and hurricanes.  Facades of once-pretentious private homes sat in crumbling piles at my feet.  Our hosts provided hospitality with not a clue as to a model a hotel might look like (i.e. no soap, bed legs that collapsed, power outages, water every other day).  Not once did I see a baby in a stroller.  Could this be due to the poor infrastructure?  The unavailability of strollers?  The choking smog from the ubiquitous 50s Chevrolets?   Fidel’s regime (most there don’t call him Castro, but Fidel) is fiercely proud and will not allow Havana to be re-built or re-colonized by outside investment.  People there don’t own their homes, but don’t want to be displaced by renovations, so even if offered, the occupants deny the opportunity.  Despite the recent gargantuan efforts to restore around 4,000 buildings in Old Havana, the best we saw were upgraded facades, with crumbing alleys and interiors.  We walked into courtyards behind them to witness the devastating condition of the buildings.  Terraces had fallen, stones littered the courtyards, catwalks connected rooms (through fallen floors and ceilings), and electrical wires were strung all across the exterior of buildings.  Many windows lacked glass and any protection from the elements (mosquitos, rain, hurricanes).  These are especially desperate times for an UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Media.  There is little news other than two state-run grainy TV channels, the weekly multilingual newspaper (propaganda) La Granma and a handful of other papers (none of which I saw for sale or saw anyone reading).  Satellite dishes are prohibited and punished by ten years in prison for possessing one.  Foreign multimedia (especially US) is prohibited, although exchanged on the black market.  So, even while having healthy conversations with our tour guides about politics (not with people on the street, however – for fear of repercussion), I had to consider the lack of good information that our guides actually had access to.  A brief discussion is cited here.  One guide, Edel asks, “You have democracy, right?  You can vote?  You have a voice?  You can travel? ”  All good, so far.  “Then explain me this,” he continues.  “Why you cannot travel to Cuba for 57 years?  Your OWN government prohibit you from doing this.”  Pregnant pause.  I quickly realize that this indoctrination subject goes both ways.   He continued with the argument that while US citizens pay for healthcare and school.  “In Cuba, the government GIVE us education and food.”  Yes, the ration cards.  I forgot to mention the ration cards.  I saw a ration card up close and personally visited a ration depot to see how it worked.   Six eggs a month per person, ½ pound chicken, 1.5 lb fish, 8 lbs rice, among other very basic things, yet milk ONLY for children six and under and those who are pregnant.  If you are hungry and kill a cow, you will serve 30 years in prison.  Personal items such as soap and sanitary napkins?  Maybe, if available.  This situation became deplorable in 1990 when the Soviet Union crumbled and withdrew their $3 million/day stipend to buoy Cuba.  Once cigarettes and birthday cakes were rationed, but from 1990 on, commodities in Cuba could not be procured without bribery or trade.  Fidel called this the ‘Special Period’.  Cubans must tighten their belts and move forward!   Most others would call it severe deprivation by Communism. Or, if you held the Communist party line, it was all about the decades’ old US trade embargo or otherwise known as the “El Bloqueo”.  food-3

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Seen here.  What books are available for purchase.

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The Cuban privilege.  I lived it – even just for a few days.  (Although, I clearly enjoyed a better protein diet than the average Cuban.)  Our tour guide told us how privileged the Cubans are to have free education and free health care.  The best in the world!   “God forbid that you need to visit a hospital while you are here.  But my friends, if you do, you will see that you are in excellent hands!  There will be no paperwork, no bills, and you will receive the best health care in the world.”  I was inclined to believe it.  After all, I had heard that Cuba trained teachers and doctors and shipped these Cuban experts to many other countries in need.  I later learned that this was more like a trade-deal, so that Cuba could procure the goods they needed in exchange.    Seen here, the best breakfast one can “procure” at the casita.  Pink mayonnaise on bread, canned green beans, undressed cabbage, one egg and fried stuff which I can only describe in person.  If you’re hungry and you don’t know when you’ll eat next, you’ll eat it.  I did (except for the mayonnaise).food (11).jpg

Access to goods.   I was well warned in Miami that if I went only to Havana, I would NOT see the real Cuba.  Apparently, outside the city there is virtually no access to goods and the people live in extreme poverty.  “Havaianas have it good,” one Uber driver told me.  “Go outside Havana to see the REAL Cuba.”  Yet in Havana there were no markets, no pharmacies, no stores, no electronics – nothing to buy except what the government stores sold, or was privately available – such as items that were ancient and procured by private means, like a 30 year-old blender sitting on an open neighborhood window, obviously for sale.  Internet access is almost nihl to Cubans.  Apparently, 90% of Cubans do not even know that the internet exists.  They posed for pictures, but no one had a ‘smart’ phone or cell phone, and I doubt they knew its potential.  While I went completely off the grid for the 3.5 days I was in Cuba, I did see a few ‘hot spots’ where Cuban teens gathered on the sidewalk engrossed in phones of some iteration (presumably from relatives in the US) to connect for $2/hr to the internet (Facebook).  Keep in mind that the average Cuban monthly income is $18.  I think there are some cutting-edge, entrepreneurial businesses (such as the casitas and tour agencies) that are gleaning internet access in some way (via satellite?), but the exposure is very, very minimal.  I tried to look up the website to Ekelsontours.com (Edel’s company) and reached a dead end.  people22.jpg

Education.  Cuba boasts of its free educational system for all.  I am educator who has visited schools in rural parts of Colombia and Mexico, making connections between children across the globe.  I dreamed of making even the slightest connection between the students in Vermont with whom I work and a school in Cuba.  I requested a school visit to be included in our itinerary.   After all, the people-to-people Visa is about culture, education and history on a scheduled tour!  Months after my inquiry (waiting up until 4 days prior to the trip), the Cuban Ministry of Education ultimately denied the request to visit a school.  They did not like the idea of my bringing a letter from students in the USA. Or, they just couldn’t fathom pulling together a visit that would be fitting to their image of world-class education.  It’s a fact that the regime tries to control access to information from the outside world.

Yet on day one in Old Havana the opportunity presented itself.  My friend noticed that we were walking right by a school and offered to take my picture in front of the entrance.  The doors were wide open and the custodial staff encouraged me to step in.  I leapt at the opportunity, even while the tour marched on down the cobblestone streets.  I was led to the doorway of a 2nd grade classroom.  About 25 children dressed in uniforms were lined up at wooden desks facing the chalkboard, two to a desk.  There were posters of Fidel and Che on the wall overlooking the pupils.  Natural light filtered through the windows.  Two students recited a verb conjugation at the front of the class, and then the rest of the pupils answered in unison.   It was a throwback scene from the 1950s.  I saw no technology in the classroom, except an old TV on a cart (which I later understood to be used for VCR tapes).  Next to the classroom sat the director, a dark-skinned woman in her 40s, dressed in a professional suit.  She smiled at me from behind an enormous wooden desk with a few papers on it.  There was no telephone, no computer, not a stitch of technology in her office.  I introduced myself briefly, left a few small gifts for the class (pink eraser tops and manual sharpeners), and excused myself to sprint back to the tour.  My heart felt big.  I actually saw the inside of a Cuban elementary school.  schools2 (5).jpg

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Our tour guide, Manuel, boasts about the education in Cuba.  “In Cuba, we are nearly 100% literate!”  I must admit that this is a very impressive statistic, placing Cuba among the top 10 of the most literate countries in the world.  Manuel did explain that the textbooks at school were regurgitated year after year, and that it was likely that the same group of textbooks had been used by his mother, 20 years prior.  The same textbooks.  He said this in the context of how important it was to care for their books, and that if they lose a textbook, they stand to pay 15 cents to replace it (a small fortune).  Where’s the innovation, inquiry, and access to information that contribute to the complete education of a learner?  As an technology educator, the idea of learning from one or two sources alone (dated textbooks and content from the teacher) is abhorrent.  The Castro administration seeks to strictly limit and control its citizens’ access to information.  The indoctrination of the Castro regime seeks to plant pride in the hearts of Cubans by telling them that they are receiving the absolute best education has to offer, but they simply have no means to compare or to know that they are dealt only a few cards in the deck.  I highly doubt that graduating students have the skills, resources and experience to compete on a global level in today’s connected society.  

Hospitals.  On the flight back to Miami, I sat next to Miguel, a young Cuban man in his 20s.  He was clearly upset, and breathing deeply.  I inquired if he was okay.  He explained his worry about his mother back in a hospital in Cuba with an unknown abdominal malady.  He was extremely concerned about her prognosis and the two-week wait for abdominal surgery.  He showed me the following pictures of her shared hospital room and bathroom.  Cutting-edge?  I think not.  Let’s consider the obvious.  Where is the advanced technology?  Why is there mold and peeling paint in the bathrooms?  Unsanitary!  When is a toilet seat an optional accessory, especially for the infirm?  Miguel told me that Cubans do not have any choice of toilet seats whatsoever.

Paint peeling from the walls.  Bring your own blankets and fan.  Where is the advanced medicine? infrastructure10-3

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I asked Miguel if he was happy with his life in the USA.  His face lit up and he said, “Yes!  Little Havana is just like Havana, but with FOOD! … (pause) and jobs … (pause) and a future.”

Miguel went on to send me photos of their “Walmart in Cuba” (aka government stores).  Even if one has money, there’s little to procure.  The shelves of the stores are bare, except for rice and more rice, and a single string of sausages.  Another image shows a plethora of unlabeled detergent (?) and corridors of empty shelves.  I had known this to be an issue in Cuba, having read three books prior to my visit.  Our luggage was limited to 20lbs.  Yes, 20 lbs., including the suitcase.  So, there was no way to bring in goods.  Besides, we were warned that any gifts we chose to bring would be taxed by the Cuban government.  So, the tiny gifts I brought to the school and to my casita had all been removed from packaging, except the Ziploc baggies, which were received with astonishment.  I also left a few hotel soaps, sanitary napkins, shampoos, hair clips and ties, as well as the hand towels I had brought with me.  

If you only need unlabeled detergent, one string of sausage or rice.  Otherwise empty shelves.

Surviving Cuban Life = Situated Learning.  This is a tongue-in-cheek comparison to learning styles I have studied in my Educational Technology class this fall.   Situated Learning is “learning by doing” and the theory is that “realistic and complex problems allow learners to learn to think and practice like experts in the field.”  It’s an ironic, but real daily practice on the isolated Caribbean island of Cuba.  Daily life in Cuba is difficult.  The lack of resources in Cuba has created an industrious, enterprising and resourceful population who can hack everyday materials to modify and repair the tools they have (circa 1959).   Procuring what an individual needs to survive and maintain is a full-time job.  Car parts are simply unavailable, yet Cubans manage to rework other materials to maintain old Russian and US cars that are often more than 50 years old.  The rations that the government gives each Cuban falls short of covering their basic needs.  However, there is an active black market for procuring meats, vegetables, personal items, and clothing.  The tourist dollars (including the $US which is now legal to hold) provide a crucial income to Cubans who do not make enough money to survive.  Most people hold two or more jobs in order to support themselves.  Those who have the means, hire a posse of staff members whose job it is to upkeep the property and procure the goods needed to run the household. 

The casita where I stayed (on a pullout couch with a collapse-able leg at will…) was a signature of Spanish colonial architecture.   It was well-kept and tended, 24 hours/day.

 

The Real Story from Exiles.  My most interesting discussions were with the exiled Cuban Uber drivers in Little Havana (Miami) prior to my trip to the island.  Unlike Cubans on the island (who fear speaking out), those living in Little Havana have a LOT to say about the sacrifice and suffering of the Cuban people.  In 1959, Fidel’s regime took possession of everything and claimed it as property of the state.  If you owned a house – it’s now property of the state.  If you had a business – it’s now government owned.  If you had money in the bank – it’s been confiscated.  Every Cuban was given 200 pesos each to start a new life.  Another quote by Fidel, “The revenues of Cuban state-run companies are used exclusively for the benefit of the people, to whom they belong.”  And yet, the Cuban people have NOTHING except what is communal today, and those few who are allowed to do small enterprise authorized by the state.  See the photo of the lady with the cigar (note her laminated ‘permiso’).  people2 (1).jpg

The first picture shows school children seeing their photo for the first time on a traveler’s Smart Phone.  The photo on the right shows school children taking a walk.  Note the boy wearing one sneaker and one flip flop.

A Cuban Uber driver, Edemberto had this story to tell over the 14-minute ride.  “My father was trained as a mechanical engineer.  He was sent to Mexico a few times for extended-work projects, and then returned back to Cuba.  He was then sent to Canada for another job.  While there, he met up with the cousin of a friend.  She took him on a ride which led to a rural area.  At one point, she screamed, “Get out of the car, run, run, over there!”  In the distance he could see a figure and ran toward it.  It was his uncle, standing inside the border within the US. The father had no idea that this plan had been made for him.  Now he was in the United States filing for exile status.  A year later, established with a job and an apartment in the US, he saved and saved and saved his money so that he could send for his wife and son from Cuba.  His wife made applications for permission to emigrate to the US, but got denied year after year.  Apparently one can make only one request per year.  Soon, the son, Edemberto would become 18 and be forced to serve two years in Cuban military service.  In a desperate move, the father managed to find “human smugglers” who would be willing to get his family to Mexico for $12,000 each.  BUT, the only way to do this was to divorce his wife.  She then married a Mexican, obtained the paperwork for her and her son, Edemberto, to go to Mexico.  They were in Mexico for two weeks, travelled north by bus to the US border, jumped out and ran with their hands up and yelled, “Wait!  We are exiles from Cuba”.  They had no idea why this strategy would work, but it did.  The mom and son were whisked off to a debriefing holding cell for 48 hours with no sleep and little food.  They were then sent to the east coast to be united with family.  His parents later re-married.  This is a desperate, but poignant story that exemplifies the suffering and sacrifice the Cuban people have endured since 1959.  

 

Celebrations in the street.  I am not at all surprised that Cubans in Little Havana are celebrating the death of Fidel.  It symbolizes the opportunity for change to come to Cuba and hope for a better future.  I have heard dozens of people quoted saying, “I wish my grandpa had lived long enough to experience this moment.”

 

Link to Anne’s Havana Photos (2016)

Parts Unknown – Cuba.  By Anthony Bourdain (2015)

New York Times – The Story of Fidel Castro and Cuba. (26 Nov 2016)

Living Inside the Revolution – An Irish Woman in Cuba, by Karen McCartney (2012)

Cuba Diaries, by Isadora Tattlin (2003)

Countries with the Highest Literacy Rates (2016)

Curiosity = Key to Learning

Curiosity is the key to learning.  

I believe that inquiry-based learning is about curiosity.  By definition, the theory of inquiry-based learning is that knowledge is gained or discovered by exploration and reflection.  IBL involves students in their own learning.  The process starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios.  I have personally experienced the power of IBL over the past 5 months, culminating in a mere 3.5 day trip to La Habana, Cuba.

I have been a culture-hound since 1987, when I traveled and lived in Italy as an exchange student.  I learned Italian the hard way, by living in a household where not a word of English was spoken.  I learned the language by the books (grammar) and with my heart (boyfriend) and began a lifelong quest for culture from that point on.  Fast forward three decades, through dozens of subsequent trips to Spanish-speaking countries, hosting a Colombian exchange student for a year, and sending my daughters across continents in a quest to learn language and appreciate culture.  That’s the short story.

My literature of choice are autobiographies.  Over the past decade, I have read dozens of books by survivors of the Holocaust, and regimes in Cambodia and North Korea.  I’m not exactly sure why I am drawn to such depressing subject matter, but the pattern is consistent with wanting to glean an appreciation for the human condition and read personal stories that must be told.

Last July, I leapt at the opportunity to visit Cuba on a “cultural, historical and educational” Visa (a condition imposed on visitors from the USA).  Motivated by curiosity and a million questions, I read four books on Cuba ( three personal accounts and one tour book) and watched a multitude of video documentaries to familiarize myself with the political and social history of a Caribbean island that has been ruled by a dictator for 57 years.  The tour organizers gave a further reading list, and I delved even deeper, spurred by my own curiosity to learn and assimilate.  This was inquiry-based learning at its best.

The trip to Cuba took place last week, Nov. 3-6, 2016.  My most interesting connections came from speaking with Cuban emigres in Little Havana, Miami (who are VERY opposed to the Cuban government, having escaped with their lives alone) and from deep philosophical discussions with my two Cuban tour guides, who have been indoctrinated in the Communist system and pointed out that I was indoctrinated in ‘Democracy’, too.  

My personal reflection is that this trip to Cuba was profound on a political and social level.  I have gained insight and perspective to a culture and political system that I could never have forged from books and videos alone.  Literally placing myself in that environment solidified all the learning and inquiry I had delved into through my personal inquiry.

Next on the agenda is to share my photos and my personal story with the 450 students and staff at my school.  The questions and discussion will be beckoning the next students towards a personal inquiry of their own somewhere in the world.  

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Above.  A classroom of 7 year olds in Old Havana, Cuba.  Below, the workers at the bodega where Cuban bring their ration cards for monthly rations of rice, sugar, eggs and meat.

Personal Learning & Inquiry

I grew up in the 80’s in a system where knowledge was bestowed or transferred to the learner.  Lucky be the learner who assimilated to the system and gleaned high marks!  Back then, I earned my first grade of 47 in high school history because I thought that listening was enough.  I quickly learned that I had to employ many strategies to assimilate the new information in some way.  Note taking, reading, inquiry.  This was an ugly, uncomfortable, and memorable educational experience for me.  Fortunately, I was quick-witted enough to turn around the trend and glean dean’s list for the rest of high school and college.  

Today, I work in an environment where PLN is a buzzword acronym, spinning around and revisiting me in memos, list-servs, and other learning networks.  I am not included in these exclusive meetings, but I can honestly say that I am seeing differences in teaching styles and learning inquiry during the past decade (my work in an educational environment).  

Personal Learning Networks is a term that is seeped in self-advocacy and inquiry.

For me, education and work are seeped into one beautiful tangle.  As a tech support specialist, I learn on the job.  While, in my educational pursuits, I apply what I learn back to the field.   My personal learning network extends from colleagues, student inquiry, grad school, conferences (leading and attending), tech troubleshooting, list-servs, and a multitude of tech newsletters that overfill my inbox (and frankly, I enjoy reading).  Cliche’ as it may sound, I am a lifelong student, continuing to seek education in all forms (social, classical grad school, conferences, and personal inquiry) every day, all day.

I am seeing ‘signals’ of what education will look like in ten years’ time. I believe that there will be ample opportunities for students to advocate and create learning opportunities in their own areas of interest.  My personal hesitation involves questioning the validity of the sources that our students may seek in their personal learning quest.  How will students sift through the junk to get quality information?  In the past, the encyclopedias and published authors were the resources for quality, vetted data.  Today, there is no vetting, and anyone can publish on multiple platforms with the air of an expert in the field.  This is a truly concerning prospect.

In the past week, I have had four students approach me to inquire about learning opportunities.  This new inquiry-based learning is being facilitated by forward-thinking teachers and their students who are making bold to ask for more.  The first student asked me if he could take apart a computer this year.  (Note to self…)  Literally two hours later, a technician was preparing to unscrew a laptop monitor for repair.  “Hold it right there!”  I lept at the opportunity to pull this student out for an opportunity of (his) lifetime.  Behold the picture below.  This student is in tech heaven.  

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A fifth grade teacher has recently implemented “Genius Hour”, which is technically a daily appointment to dream it, make it, present it over the course of a semester.  A specific student asked about making a game on an app.  The teacher squinted and quirked his head in doubt.  Then he said, “this is a question for Mrs. Pius.”  I am now working with this student first through Turtle Academy (Logo) and now Scratch.mit.edu to learn basic coding principles and create a real game that can be played by his peers.  The best part of working with this student are the ‘lightbulb’ moments when he really gets it and connects what he is learning in coding to other learning in the classroom.  

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Kiwi Culture.

More than eight hundred years ago the Maori people traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in small canoes and became the first inhabitants of New Zealand. Today, the Maori culture is a core part of the New Zealand national identity.  While the kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand, it is also a common term to describe a New Zealander.

In 1849 and so New Zealand became part of the British empire.  There are two main languages spoken on the island: Maori and English, with English being the primary one.  The Maori language is still taught in schools today.  In this video below (captured in October 2016), we see a classroom of eight year olds from the Fernridge School, practicing their Maori language in a daily prayer.  Notice the kiwi tradition of bare feet in the classroom.