Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Brief History ...by Stephen Hawking

This was a short read.  All the hype about the Ice Bucket Challenge reminded me of Stephen Hawking. FaceBook was full of articles about ALS and of course its most famous victim, Stephen Hawking. And who wouldn't know him.

I had read about Stephen Hawking as young girl, in a Reader's Digest article about 3 decades ago. I learned it was called Lou Gehrig's Disease. That name got stuck in my head somehow over the years and I always remembered. I remembered too flipping through my Encyclopaedia Britannica to read more about Lou Gehrig and that info about him being a famous baseball player got etched into my mind too.

And that struck me as funny cos I have discovered that many of my students don't seem to share that sort of penchant or interest to learn something which sometimes may not seem related to our lives at that moment.

Anyway, coming back to the book. The first part was easy enough to read as it mainly detailed Hawking's early life. There wasn't much difference from the biography that I had read about Hawking. The last chapter however, took a little more effort as he went into the discussion about the black hole and the cosmos. But the brevity of his narrative made the reading a very pleasurable activity.

I started reading the book at around 10 p.m. and got up at 4.00 ++ a.m. the next morning to continue reading. I finished before 6 and got ready to go to work.

It's been a while since I read any books. Most of my reading these days are mainly articles and magazines. It is quite nice to 'hold' a book and read one for a change.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Years On... Still On CPT

Two years ago, I wrote about having to sit for the Cambridge Placement Test (CPT). And the results were finally released to the teachers. I happened to walk into the Staff Room a couple of days ago and my KP congratulated me and passed me a set of forms to be filled in. Apparently there was a one off incentive given to the teachers who passed the CPT with a C1 or C2. I had no inkling of what she was talking about as I had forgotten about the exam. I wasn't even sure whether I sat for it.

Anyway, a colleague sent me the website to check my status, which I did. And my name appeared. It is strange that we needed 2 years to process a set of results. And during those 2 years, many teachers had already been asked to attend the APTIS course which is kinda like a remedial... they have a nicer sounding term. They call it upskilling.

The MOE took away our Critical Allowance last year. The PPSMI was supposed to continue till 2018... (I might have the year wrong) and the Critical Allowance was supposed to be till then. But I supposed, with most schools teaching Maths and Science in BM, it was only logical that the allowance be taken away. One of the reasons for the failure of PPSMI I still believe is the lack of teachers skilled enough in English... If a teacher cannot convey a lesson across effectively due to the lack of language, that is already problem enough.

If the CPT results are anything to go by, they point too, to (in)competency problems among the English teachers. Results were dismal, I read. And where I am, I think it's a real problem too. Grades for CPT are C2 (Mastery; 90-100), C1 (Effective Proficiency; 75-89), B2 (Vantage; 60-74),  B1 (Threshold; 40-59), A2 (Waystage, 20-39), A1 (Breakthrough; 10-19) and Pre A1 (0-9).

From among those I know, there were some C1(s) and fewer C2(s). And from the C2 group, many of them had retired. We keep saying that our education system is world class... if it is so, then there should be a big group of C2(s) and even bigger group of C1(s). Yet it is heavily skewed towards the B(s) and A(s). But like the proverbial frog under the coconut shell who has only a narrow view of one spot of blue sky, we believe that all is well.

This Merdeka Day... while many adverts keep heaping praises on our diversity, yet when you go out onto the streets... the Merdeka spirit seems kinda lacking. Fewer flags seem to be flown, the air of Merdeka-ness just doesn't seem to be in the air... It feels kinda dampened. I think many are weighed down by many things... being squeezed by rising costs, GST looms ahead... But I think too, it is hard to build a Malaysian race when so many policies around us still divide us by ethnicity. What has that to do with the CPT results? Well... the CPT result is an indication too at a nation blinding itself to our skewed values which has brought us where we are.

Well, maybe that's just me feeling it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Take Time To Smell The Roses...

Growing up in an idyllic surrounding, with time in hand for so many mundane things... climbing trees, cycling through the rubber estates and stopping to collect the rubber seeds sometimes, going to the beach, sometimes on many consecutive weekends, hiking, playing games.. we seemed to have our hands filled with activities...

Most of the time, we were game enough to try any thing. We built, took things apart, made our own toys, played seasonal games... kite flying, marbles, gasing... We still had time to smell the roses...

Many kids I see do very little of those activities.... Maybe there are other pressing needs now, tuition, music and art lessons. Busy lives we lead now. The young seems to be as busy as the adults. Busy topping up knowledge..... certs. We are all on the superhighways now, zooming at prescribed speeds trying to get to our destinations ASAP. Gone are the winding roads hugging the hillside and snaking through the countryside. The terrain used to dictate how the roads traverse the country. These days, the roads bulldozed through everything.....even mountains.

Many of us seems to be in a constant rush.... I think many of us don't have time for small talk. Or time to ask each other about the mundane.. When we have no time for that, I think we don't take much interest in each other's lives too. There are more who want to talk and less who are willing to listen... We seem to thrive on the sensational or events that will elicit oohs and aahs. I don't know whether it's just social reengineering or we are more prone to the continuous effort of creating an image.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram... They have changed the way we create image too apart from the interacting part. The Ice Bucket Challenge for example. It succeeded in collecting close to USD16 million compared to just USD 2 million the previous year. ALS is a debilitating disease. But once this hype dies, ALS will be forgotten again. If it was donation sought, even a million for many of the celebrities is just small change.

Then the honours accorded to those who died in the MH17 tragedy... even the King was there! There are many who die senseless deaths in the country every day. And there were many too who gave their lives for the country who did not get the same honour. It's rather peculiar the way we operate.. we seem to have this need to show that we care or grief in a way that lets the whole world know that we are feeling that. Or maybe it's just to satisfy this need which is innate in every one of us.. the need to show. Maybe it's just we have no time..... and we need such outlets.

A 'one-off' grieving moment... or a moment to show we care. I don't know. Over the years I have learned that it takes time to build a character. It needs time to show we care. It requires effort to know. And we don't have that sort of time. No time to even smell the roses. Maybe the social structure has changed. Maybe this is the reengineering of the way we should operate as a society of the new millennium.

But perhaps in all these.. it might do us well to take time and smell the roses again. Sit down face to face, over a cuppa and sembang-sembang...


Friday, August 22, 2014

A Chinese Concert

This is a first for me, two Fridays ago. I actually attended a Chinese concert.... I guess it qualifies for a 'pop' concert. Well it was a concert by a group of singers in the 50s reminiscings the 80s and 90s. And to think, when I was my kid's age, I was looking into the 60s and 70s.... my parents' era. Another generation, the same cycle...

The venue was Keat Private Hall. Place was quite comfy enough but the chairs were hard. I think my butt feels kinda 'flattened'. And it was a little tiring.. like many 'Chinese events' this didn't start on time and as a result it ended quite late. We left before it ended.

The hall was quite filled. If my smattering Mandarin is anything to go by, I think they managed to collect a tidy sum from the school, which is not bad considering there was just another concert at the same place just 7 days ago. It was also another fund raising concert.

I could understand half of what was going on. The other other... I depended on my own deductions and translation from my two friends. It was a night of three mothers and six children.

Many of the songs were unfamiliar to me... not surprising since it in a language not very familiar to me. The songs came from the late 80s and beyond. Back in those days, the singers were still young. Most of them have passed the half century mark I think.

Some songs were nice. Mostly were slow numbers. The few which were fast and loud were too loud for my liking. The music was too loud for my comfort. But I could see too some of the oldies in the hall enjoying the show. How not to, when a piece of your childhood comes alive for that brief moment.

Totally another first.

And oh yes.. today the remains of the MH17 were finally brought home. There is so much fanfare... Sometimes I wonder whether we were caught up by the precedence in the Netherlands earlier cos not even our fallen soldiers receive such honour.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Using Google Doc In Class

It is when we get down to things that we learn what works or not and the problems that we'll encounter. Trying out Google Docs in class was an experience which was overall quite positive. With 40 over students in my biggest class, the challenge was there alright. 

Little details like making sure students don't stray and that they stay focused were my main initial concerns. But that proved to be the least of my challenges. I started my very first lesson by putting onto the screen a step-by-step instruction. With the exception very few students, getting Google doc started was not a problem. The few problems were due to my assumption that everyone would have a Gmail. Turned out, quite a few did not use Gmail. But that was mostly sorted out by the 2nd or 3rd lessons. 

What I like about Google Doc is the immediate collaboration that I could do with my students as they worked on their writing. I think I have never been able to 'communicate' with this many students in one lesson when writing is involved. It has always been a challenge to navigate a packed class and bending down to their tables to try to read and comment on their work. With Google Doc, I literally breezed in and out of the students' writings. And to make everyone more aware of each other's work, I projected the collaborations on the projector screen. The effect was quite amazing. 

Instant remarks meant I was highly involved in each student's effort. I could amend, comment, correct, provide suggestions and even leave short notes to individual students as they worked on their writing. This increases the students' abilities to respond just as quickly too. It's been two weeks and I have already seen increased involvement and interest in quite a number of my students who before this seemed more detached. I think my being able to get back to them fast has something to do with it. Somehow, I feel Google Doc makes the connection between teacher and student more real... something akin to a more personal instruction. And I think this makes process writing a walk in the park...

It is only my second week, but I feel the students seem more engaged and interested. Maybe it is the novelty of this being new. But maybe too, being able to collaborate this way makes all the difference.

On my part, one of the first things I realised on the first day was the need to have a proper nomenclature and structure for the filing system. Being digital means you can't hold them in your hands and I think many of us old timers might miss that familiarity. By the second week, I was receiving up to 200 emails a day from my students. I had to work things out myself so that each student's work could be filed up and recalled. I have a rudimentary system in place now. It'll get refined as I go along, I am sure. 

I think trying to carry this out might be quite daunting to many teachers at the moment due to the lack of competency and familiarity with the computers/tablets/apps/softwares. I have discovered that; efficiency, speed and a clear understanding of how Google Docs, proper structures in digital filing, feeling at home with technology and even good typing skills, all play a role in easing us into this classroom of the future. 

On another lighter note, I am now receiving emails at home from students telling me that they have done their corrections and asking whether I have any more work for them. One of the other thing I learned is this. I think many of our students are not used to the computer as a learning tool. For many, it is more for pleasure than learning. Many are still not aware that tablets are slowly changing the way we learn and we need to know how to use it to that end.

I like the idea of not having to sit at the table and mark my exercise books. I like the fact that I can now check on my students' work in between this and that... I call it stealing time. Being able to put essays 'in the cloud' means I am able to access it anytime and if you can manage it well, it means utilising your time to the maximum.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Teaching Writing With Google Docs

I started nibbling on the Drive after I ran out of space in my Dropbox. Up till then, I figured I had no need for the Drive. But at the end of last year, I attended a course on the Chrome books. There I met a guy who used to work for Google and I struck up a conversation with him. He made me realise that Google Docs had its uses too. I went back that day and immediately tried out the flubaroo scripts and Google Forms.

Was quite amazed with what I could do with it. I experimented with it for a couple of days, created a few forms and sets of questions. Unfortunately, I had no place to try it out. And so, the whole thing just sort of faded into the background.

That was till middle of this year when I cleared up an unused computer lab, which is where I carry out all my classes now. About 2 weeks ago, despite it being exam season, I embarked on another journey of discovery. I tried out Google Docs in class... to teach writing. It is now possible to do what I had learned the year before because I had at my disposal 41 units of chrome books.

And so I started with my classes. But before that I brought my gal and my friend's kids to the lab for a trial run. It was pretty amazing... the result. I felt I could make it work.

However, getting students to listen when the chrome book screen is staring at them is no mean feat. Our young has a fascination with the computer screen and it is often hard to get their attention when the screen is on. Chaos reigned because it was something new for me.

Much to my surprise my students were not as savvy as I had expected, but they learned fast. Many didn't know about the uses of Drive, let alone Google Docs. One thing though, teaching the young wasn't very difficult. They have no phobia. But the patience developed over the years from teaching my senior citizen friends helped a lot in dealing with the chaotic moments teaching the young. It is easy to get flustered...

I started with a short writing assignment... a postcard. And going by the response so far, I think using Google Docs to teach writing is quite cool. The initial wonderment when the kids felt when they realised that I was right there in their documents as they worked on it was quite priceless.

It was a rather steep learning curve for me. I had to figure out how to go around the problems a they presented themselves. You can imagine how chaotic it was with one voice calling out from one table he could not browse, and another voice saying she had no gmail account. Then yet another bringing his chrome book to me saying that it can't be turned on. One more would pipe out that her mouse pointer on the screen was very big.... the list is unending. My phone was used to verify so many new accounts that it was barred by Google! All these, while I was trying to sort out my own filing system and getting back to the students... Patience memang is a virtue.

But despite all those chaos.... learning still took place. Both for me and the students. Practical skills! I felt like my brain is on the overdrive these past weeks. So many files, so many students asking for attention for the littlest problem. And trying to keep a cool head... I think I got really good training in crisis management from this episode.

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel if you persists. It's been 2 weeks. And I am more settled. And I think to be able to use Google Docs to teach writing is quite cool. The experience has convinced me all the more that we need a rethink the way most of us teach.

Details to follow on the 'moments' be they the 'aha' ones or the 'Oh crap!' ones...



Monday, August 11, 2014

Caltex Fuel Your School


Got this in my mail today..... Put in the proposal in a haste the night before the closing date and today I got this email! Almost did not want to put in but sometimes because there are people working with you... well, you kinda just continue to plod on. 

I remember staying up very late that night to upload the documents and proposal.
Anyway, the least I'll get is a Certificate of Participation... 8)

It all started because an ex-colleague wanted to ask for my help to come up with a proposal for it and she went through my colleague. When I went back to school the next day, the latter asked me whether I had any ideas. And so I hatched a couple as we were standing by the field. We found another colleague who had written in a proposal the previous year and succeeded in getting a few eco-boards for the school.

And so as we discussed, I hatched more ideas. And finally we agreed to help each other out. And so, we went and got the quotations and necessary documentations done. But because I was busy, I almost wanted to just give it a miss. That is where a little nudge made all the difference. Documents were forwarded to me and both my colleagues saw me for more details of the ideas we hatched earlier.

No iPad or AppleTV for my proposal as I have been using this. Instead I opted for personal cloud computing. I have been using a WDLiveBook at home for quite some time. Found it to be convenient for storage and also accessing files even when I am not at home. And with the WDCloud app on the iPad, it really made things easy. Having everything I need for work in one place definitely beats rummaging through your bag for thumb drives. And thumb drives get left behind or dropped.

So, my proposal includes setting up a cloud in the class or class in the cloud. Either way, it is supposed to make available resources to my students. That is the main equipment, the others being a colour laser printer (I wish I can have a 3D-printer but it's still expensive now and there is still the issue of safety where the fumes are concerned) and a projector. 

Cloud In The Class.... that is the name of my proposal. Classrooms are changing. The way we learn should change to reflect the technology available to us now. Chalk and talk, static text books, teacher as the sole source of information.... well, those are yesteryear's way. Historically, the way education is done has been changing for as long as written records have been around. So there is no reason for us not to embrace the new technologies.

But I think everything is kinda cyclical. Once upon a time, when one wanted to master a skill, he became an apprentice under a master.... personalised learning. 8) Then mass education came along when the Industrial Revolution came about. There was simply not enough people to do the one-to-one thing. But now... technology has made what was impossible possible... and better.

I think learning has never been more fun than now... even at school, I am trying out so many things.... my good friend keeps encouraging me to blog about it as a way of keeping record and also to remember. I keep procrastinating. I should really get down to it and blog more again...

Anyway, today's email was nice.