Saturday, July 19, 2014

No More The Traditional Classroom Part 1

I have not used a chalk for more than a year now. The last one year has been tremendously fun for me as a teacher. It started off with a 10 year old projector which I plugged into an AppleTV. I was lucky to find an infrequently used media room in school. That was a year ago. And so I began to use it for my classes in July until now...

This is where I have my classes now. Just before the holidays in June, I went to speak to my Principal about a computer lab which had been unused for many years. It was in a far flung corner of the school and even many teachers were only vaguely aware of its existence. How I stumbled onto it? My Robotic Club boys wanted to find a room to work on their project for FLL and they brought me to this unused lab.

However, we didn't use it after we checked it out. The room was very dusty. There was a lingering stench from what was left of a dead rat which had decomposed. It had turned into a flattened heap of grey fur in the room. That was in April. I didn't think much about the matter as we were busy with the FLL competition that month.... we won an award for 'The Most Innovative Idea'.... 8)

Then it was exam time. I talked to my Principal about my intention to use the lab. And since the Chrome carts given by the MOE were also not being utilised, I asked for a cart to be used in the lab as well. He gave me the green light and told me I had his support.

And so, as soon as the exam ended, just before the hols started... I cleaned the lab. The first task was to clean the room. There were old desktops on the tables and I was told that they were not in working conditions. And so with my students and school workers, we dusted, swept, mopped and washed whatever that needed cleaning. The electrician and air-con technicians had to be called in to check the aircons and electrical sockets. We even had to call in a roofer as the roof was leaking. I asked for a new projector too as the old one was simply too old and on its last legs. My boss was very supportive. We got the room up and running in 4 days.

My students helped me carry and stack the old CPU(s) and monitors into the store room. We packed all the wires, cables, keyboards, etc neatly into boxes, just in case parts can be salvaged to build other stuff. I couldn't do anything about the furniture arrangement as they were too big. I brought in some stuff from home too... a pair of old Altec Lansing amplified speakers which still sound very good and a fan.

I started using the lab after the new projector arrived... in the mean time, I bought one of my own too, the EB-1776w. It has been an interesting one month plus since I moved all my classes to the lab... a month of experimenting, trying out new things and improving my teaching methods while incorporating new technology.

I was a little distracted for a fortnight during that time as I had to work on a video project for a 3R competition. That took a lot of my concentration and almost all my free time. Lots of ideas and work stuff went onto the backburner. This is a reminder how teachers should be allowed to stay focussed on their main job... that is to teach. After 2 weeks of distraction it was rather difficult to get back the rhythm as I was tired. Age is catching up with my body experiencing all kinds of muscular discomforts and pains from computer work related stress. Anyway... I recovered somewhat...though the aches linger still.

A project like this would not have taken off if not for firm support from the Head. Most school heads in Malaysian schools probably don't have a very good working knowledge of how technology can be used in class. Many have become administrators first then educators. I think it's not often teachers get a chance to do what I did. I am more fortunate. My head gave me all the support needed to get the lab up.

In the coming posts I will try to share how technology has helped change my class and how I teach. More importantly, I hope it will change the way how my students learn too...

 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Bad School Heads

I think there are too many bad heads around now. I think many of our check and balance mechanisms have gone into sleep mode or have rusted from decades of rot..... complacency, inefficiency, incapability, ignorance. That's just to name a few. And when school principals who appraise good teachers with a bent of vindictiveness get away with it because the check and balance mechanisms have failed... I just wonder how much more we'll rot.

A school with a head interested only with his teachers kowtowing to him can only be bad. No one is perfect. But when you have principals who can yell all kinds of deragoratory names on students and verbally pummel lady teachers (cos lady teachers are easier to bully), then I think most of us will probably agree that we might have a bully. And that is bad enough. Such people do not tolerate dissent. They are bent on releasing all hell if you dare question.

But when his vindictiveness is not checked by his number 2 in appraising teachers, I think it is a reflection too of how many good men and women we have left in the upper echeleons of our service. We have too many boot polishers and lickers now. I guess they are the products of our system, a system that is reeking with too many ineffiencies.

Many lament the sad state of our schools. PISA and TIMSS standings have been sliding. I think it's not just the slow responding curriculum or teachers who are the problem. Very often it has to do with the heads. When heads want to win more competitions or just focus on more of everything that can be applauded, seen and measured, then the building of the unseen such as character, a discerning mind will cease. Heads... many of them are too busy chasing their own agendas. Students become mere statistics.

We bend too many rules and insist on the long rod of stiff rules when it suits us. Funny how I didn't feel that my school had double standards when I was a student but now my students feel that they should bend standards to their advantage.

Officers from the MOE did come down to check this principal after some teachers wrote to the Ministry. He was transferred out of the school into another equivalent position in the Education Department. But as for the damage he inflicted... well, they remain long after he is gone. Appraisals are subjective. Most of us think we deserve better but I think it is still quite easy to set apart a good teacher. Then again, being a good teacher in class is not the most important thing in most schools now. Painting a good picture for everyone to see is.... and if you have to compromise your classroom work to achieve that, eyes generally get closed... well, partially closed at least.

We stoke our own egos. We live in our own castles built by our own minds. Teachers might often feel that they are better than appraised. But I think it is high time the Ministry comes up with a better check and balance mechanism. Maybe it's time too a section of the appraisal for the Principals and Senior Assistants be made up of appraisals from their subordinates, the teachers. We talk about accountability all the time. Perhaps this form of accountability should be considered as part of the check and balance mechanism.

As for this particular former Principal, maybe he was a victim of bully when he was a kid. Maybe he was subjected to much ridicule and name calling from young. Apparently word has it that he left the same trail of modus operandi every school he has held positions of authority. Heads worked their way up.... One wonders how such a head became a Principal in the first place.

In a world where collaboration, cooperation, cooperativeness are supposed to be keywords.... it feels like we are still quite entrenched in the old autocratic ways of the feudal world. This in a land where most things start from a wrong foot... by connections first, then race... then the rest of everything else. Disheartening....

 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Woman, oh woman...

A small furore... an old, very old reason. Both the Bible and Quran are consistent in this issue too, that one must stay away from a menstruating woman. Words and phrases like unclean, impure, stay away and kept away are used. Menstruation is considered an illness. Makes one wonders why a woman has to bear with all this and still get more crap at the end of the day.

What the UMNO lawyer said was hillarious. And many people gave him many thumbs down for his gender biased comment. Yet, many are aware that the words he said are sanctioned by the holy texts too. Many spoke out against him. But the scriptures remain in that position.

Relevance... I taught my students that in order for the Constitution to remain relevant, changes are allowed, though it has to go through all the debates and motions in the respective houses in the parliament. Will ijtihad be allowed? The Christians are taught that the curtain in the old temple has been torn down... That which God has created is good. Yet, even as I was growing up, girls were only allowed to lead when they was no choice. Second best... That's how girls were brought up to feel and think. It still is like that somewhat, I guess.

We are embedded into a social structure. And this incident has woefully reminded me that within this social structure, with all the goodness, justice... all things supposedly good... there exists still, this hierarchy.

Women still earn less. Women do more if not most of the housework. Much of childcare, direct involvement in child raising, running of the household and the chores are carried out by women. And many of these super women have a 'real' jobs too. They juggle the 'real' and unpaid jobs, and still get the lesser deal. They still get reminded that they are not suitable to be heads.
A biological glitch or a mistake by the Creator?

Monday, July 7, 2014

It's July

World Cup madness...Neymar is out, Brazil is still in the chase; soup kitchen blunders by our ever ready to shoot-themselves-in-their-own-foot politicians; a missing plane; political maneuverings, uncertainties about water rationing, instigations from the mouths of leaders..... the never ending effort to ressurect the ghosts of May 13...

Just came out from another round of activities. I made it to the papers too... in a paper I don't read and a language I am painfully lacking in. A feature article... Lol! Made my mom proud though. At this age, I still feel kinda good that my mom felt a little sense of pride. Mom is hardly one who will heap lavish praises. But still, it's just a 'paper appearance'... Lol! Prints fade, paper disintegrates. Today's news is forgotten after a while.

My classes are finally on the 21st century bandwagon. Started using the Chromebooks in class this term. It's slow going. Thought the students were tech savvy enough. Turns out, digital literacy is something which needs time to teach too. I run my class from what used to be an unused computer lab. It's a nice and comfy class for teacher and learners. Schools ought to have classrooms like this. In this spate of humid and warm weather, it is a wonder that our students can still stay alert after half a day of slowly being 'grilled' in the class.

I have no one to guide me. So far it has been a trial and error run. Time is something which never seems to be enough these days. I would start a lesson and then discover that the students don't have the skills for what I have in mind. I have been doing a lot of adapting, modifying and changes on the spot. Sometimes I switch topic totally. Teaching language affords me that. It has been challenging. But in all that chaos, I think I sense an increased interest among students. I find it fun too. I started off ambitious, wanted to do a PBL. I scaled down to just teaching students how to use Google almost immediately... Lol. But we are making progress.

Time is the one thing that I lack. Too many teaching periods. Too many students in a class. A Victorian production mill we still are. Individualized learning... I think we are still far from that. Students look and feel independent enough but they are not. The challenge is not to equip them with the necessary skills or change the way we look at how technology can best be used in education but to inculcate the love for knowledge. It's not that kids don't get excited over knowledge. It's just they have been dulled by the rigours of rote. The chase for A(s) has killed the ability to love knowledge. Sad. More of everything though, I think the level of ignorance has remained almost the same too... throughout the ages. Seems like the graph is hard to change.

There are always other duties that stand in the way of teaching... and other things that crop up that need our attention. I wish teachers be left alone to just teach. And there is always the personal domain too... One that demands our attention as well. Work and family - they remain two areas in a working woman's life that continually put her into a conundrum of sorts. I find myself not just wishing for more hours, more energy but sometimes a release.

Social conditioning... Pavlov's experiment on conditioning. Been many years but of late this topic has caught my fascination again. A recent video highlights this very aptly...

Undoing a stereotyping or reconditioning? 5000 years of written history and for the most part women have been told they are not suitable or capable of many things. Women are set into a lesser role, to serve. Over 26 million hits in less than a fortnight. One thing for sure out of this though.... education is definitely on the roll here. 8) It would have been impossible to reach this many in such a short time, even as recent as 20 years ago! I watched my students as they laughed through the comic of the first part and then the silence. But many could not catch the message too. 8(

One thing I learned though. Many things which we feel are set or unquestionable, we actually have no certainty of the truth. One thing that feels certain is that the human mind is an active cauldron... one which is capable of 'cooking' up many things.... it's just we label them differently.

It's July... and it'll go away soon. August is waiting....

 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Bubbles


Was home visiting my parents and took the kids to the seaside. There were children playing with the bubbles and we bought for the girls too. It was nice just watching the bubbles being made. The bubbles came out in different hues of colours. It's quite amazing to see transparent bubbles with their own colours.

They come out in different sizes too. Some would be really tiny. They were the ones which would head the pack. Then there were those who were bigger. They lumbered along, some of them never quite managing to take off. Yet there were others who seemed to float around with great ease. An occasional one or two would float right up to the branches and meet their end there. Some would skirt the surface of the water and bounce up and down a few times before ending up in a spray of soapy liquid. Yet a few would float away on their own as if pulling away while the rest bobbed in a group.... but every single one of them would burst finally.

Then there were bubbles which seemed to have thicker walls. They were not the lightest but they seemed to float the furthest generally. The lightest ones would rush to the forefront and disappear just as quickly.

I dipped the stick into the bubble liquid and found out that I could roll those around and bounce them off my stick. I could even knock a few of them together and got them to kinda stick together.
Bubbles.... many thoughts came to mind as I watched them being made and then burst....

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Projectors Epson EBW-18 and Epson EB-1776w

I finally bought my own projector... A slim and sleek Epson EB-1776w. It's the one on the right in the picture below. The one on the right is it's bigger sistah.. The Epson EBW-18. A friend bought it not too long after mine. Just so happened that the projector she was using at school went on its last legs. And she didn't want to be without a projector to use in class and so she dug into her own pocket and bought her own.
 
As to why she did not ask her school to buy her a new one... It's supposed to be difficult for schools to purchase such things. In a supposedly technologically dependent world today, schools are still not allowed to buy gadgets or electronic tools with the funds. She could repair the old projector that was on its last legs but we were told by the technician that it was not worth it. Anyway, teachers like her who dig into their own pockets to buy a projector for use in school are rare... People usually will buy if it gives them a tangible return.... like so many other things in life.
I am going to start with my EB-1776w. I am more fortunate. I have a boss who has been very supportive of my foray into the use of technology to aid teaching in class. I recently requested a new projector and was given a EBX-18. The main difference between EBX-18 and EBW-18 is of course the native resolution. EBX-18 has an XGA, 1024 x 768. Both the EBW-18 and EB-1776w come with a WXGA, 1280 x 768. Basically it means that you get a wider screen. Both projectors come with a 3000 ANSI lumens bulb, which means you get a bright projection.
 
One of the thing I like about the EB-1776w is its size. This is an ultra portable projector with many cool features. It auto corrects the projection you put up, meaning, if once you press the Screen Fit function, it would automatically adjust the projection. No need to fiddle with the buttons. I find that quite cool.
 
Apart from that, another feature which I like is the Split Screen function. Basically this means that I can use 2 devices at the same time on the projector. I have tried my iPad, connected via the VGA cable and MacBook via the USB cable simultaneously. My iPad would be on the other projector. What this means basically is I can have up to 3 different inputs running at the same time. Nice.
 
I am still in my early stages of exploring with the use of multiple inputs in class. This is has just been made possible recently after my boss allowed me to convert an unused computer lab into a class. In the coming months, I hope to incorporate the use of Chromebooks in the my classes. I am still reading up, thinking thorugh, hatching ideas of how to go about it as this is something which has not been attempted in my school. My students seem excited too.
 
Tools like projectors, tablets, computers are great tools to use in class. They make lessons come alive. They tickle the senses and cater to those who need more than just printed words to get moving. However, they are still just tools, I believe. What makes a lesson come alive, or inspire a student to move in certain directions... I think is the teacher. Teaching is an art which also requires constant rejuvanation, resupplying, resourcefulness and so on. And I think that is something which many of us have failed to realize in our quest to churn out students who can score the A(s). Learning is a process. And like many processes, it needs time.
 
And I think it's a shame that schools have not upgraded all their old projectors to the newer generation ones. I think it's a shame that there is so much control over what can be or cannot be bought using school funds. I think it is a shame that the budget is not decentralisd. I think it is a shame that we still think education is like a production line. I think it is a shame that we have so much bureaucracy. I think it's a shame that many of our Principals feel that they are the smartest people around, the way they force it on the teachers.
 
I attended a Taklimat (briefing) on PISA recently. And even before the briefing began, this authoritative lady from the Ministry told the teachers sitting at the back to fill up the front places. And that started an 'standoff' in the minds. What these education officers who is in their lofty office chairs failed to take note is.... If their presentation is interesting enough, if they are able to ignite the fire and passion in the audience about the subject matter, by the next session I am sure everyone of us would be clamouring to sit in front. That is what is lacking in our schools too....
 
Instead, we had to sit through a most boring round of what sounded to me like babbling... The stats could have just been printed out and given to us.... Sigh! This is just an example of what is happening at school too.... Relevance. Being given relevance and providing relevance.... The state of education system... We hear lots of barking but actually very little progress is made because at many points, too many things are crumbling... And sometimes I feel some quarters seem to want it that way. Ignorant and dependent fools are way easier to manipulate. Thinking fools tend to burn themselves and others along with themselves...

 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting It Right...

So what makes a good learner? Been teaching for over 20 years and good learners are elusive as can be.

It's exam season now. Mid year exam to be exact. We have our own version of 'common core standards' here. I am located in a state that is positioned third bottom in terms of achievement in the SPM, bettering only states like Sabah and Sarawak. Basically it means we are the last state in the Peninsular. And the Education Department has been breathing down our necks basically for the last few years because of this. Even Kelantan which is a poorer state has fared better.

Program after programs, detailed analysis, making calculated predictions, common exams set by a central committee... the list is long. Yet we fare no better.

My two sen of experience... I have just had the best round of grades from my students for their Form 5 History Paper 2. One student after another and scores over 80 greeted me again and again. I even have a few 98s. I should be ecstatic cos the results indicate that I must have done something right. Yet, it is now an open secret that every single paper in this mid year exam which came from the Department has leaked! So much for that momentary ecstasy that I had managed to inspire students into liking a subject which many label as boring and dead as those dead civilizations or people they depict.

Getting it right... Grades are all that seem to matter to majority of the kids. Good grades used to imply that a student is good. And a good student in turn indicates a good learner in the making. Well, that is a myth. It is also a open secret that straight A(s) students don't have good thinking or communicative skills, let alone creative thinking or problem solving skills. Prospective employers have complained enough about the quality of our graduates to give us an idea of what our schools are churning out.

Students have become very good at answering questions. Questions are hardly challenging. Grades are often adjusted. We are a nation of many straight A(s) scorers. Imagine a student with an A in English who cannot write a good composition. Or another students with an A+ who cannot solve a Primary Six (Singapore syllabus) problem solving based question. The PISA and TIMMS scores imply that our kids are around 2 years behind their counterparts. Well, I think it is probably more than that.

So, what is wrong? I think the whole way we approach learning has gone awry. Yeah! A(s) were super important during my time too. But I think we loved to learn too. I was surrounded with friends who loved all kinds of knowledge.... the sci-fi types to the lofty giddy poet wannabes. School was a place where we learned to learn. Most of the time we had to learn to find our own way, figure out the solution... in short we had time to reflect and dream. Kids today? Well, their time is jam packed with extra classes.... we have the schools to thank for that... and extra tuitions.... we have the kiasu parents to thank.

I was in my class when the History paper was collected. I had time to walk around the class before I collected the papers. I guess my students must have felt sorry for me for believing the unbelievable... that they were actually beginning to see some light in the 'dead' subject... when one of them piqued that they knew the questions beforehand. Of course I went into a tirade of sorts... But more than anything, I felt sorry for them. I felt sorry because the system has failed them. We are 'teaching' them to get the A(s) but definitely not in the way that benefits that in the longer run.

The questions leaked... We have to ask how and why. The how is obvious... probably teachers and the likelihood of tuition teachers being the culprit is high. When money is the motivator, little else needs to be said. Why? I guess it's a glimpse of the greater malaise that plagues this country too. This is a country built on sanctioned racial divide.

Getting it right. I guess we have to go back to the basics. We have to get it right at the core. We have to beat least seen doing right from the top. Walk into many schools in this state and it's not hard to see what I mean. Wrong people are sitting up there for the wrong reasons. We have to right that first. Good heads make all the difference. We have too many heads of schools who are not fit to lead. Yet they are there. I think I have served under 10 principals and countless Senior Assistants. I think I count 3, maybe 4 who made a difference. But what is probably worrying is most of them were in my early career.

It's hard to get it right. Life is hard to get right as it is too...