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. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On A Day When My MacBook Died On Me

One can start a day with great plans, a long list of things to do… and the anticipated satisfaction when all is done. Then you sit down to wake your computer up. And plug in the cable to charge the iPad… I am always one who prefer a state of preparedness. So having my iPad charged to the max makes feel 'better'. I like my payung ready at all times if I can help it... 8) But all plans no matter how well thought out can go awry....

I plugged in the cable… and almost immediately, the familiar whirring of the computer stops. That was when I looked up and stared momentarily at my darkened screen. It took a moment for my brain to process an ‘Ooops!” and almost immediately too my hands started to toggle the MagSafe power adapter. Everything seemed fine. The next logical target was the power supply. Nothing wrong there too. No matter what I did, the MacBook remained dead as a doornail.

But the surprising thing this time around was even though I was perturbed, I wasn’t very agitated. Maybe age has caught up. Maybe I am more settled. Maybe it’s easier to get a replacement now. Well, there are many maybes… I sent out a message that my Mac had died! Well, we are social creatures in need of connection, especially when certain moments hit. My Mac dying seemed important enough... LOL!

The day passed… it felt kinda long but there was a steady stream of people into my room and that sort of drew my mind away from the 'loss'. But as soon as the bell rang, I was off to Switch. Got to AS Mall, lugged my heavy bags to the outlet and then plonked my computer on their table. Service was prompt and the guy there tried to see to my problem. He took my charger while I plugged out one of their display units.

The charger I plugged in seemed to work fine…. but.... then the yellow light on the charger faded into nothing right before my eyes. I took it out, toggled it, put it back...Nothing! Then I plugged the charger back to its original computer. The darn light came back on again. I took it out… put into mine. This time, it stayed green. I pressed on the button and my Mac came back to life momentarily, as in the logo lighting up being the only sign of life. And then it promptly 'died' again.

By then the sales assistant had come back. Told me my adapter worked fine. I asked him what could be wrong. He mumbled something about the battery being totally dead, which could not have been because the Mac was fully charged when it died. I asked him whether they could do anything. He told me I needed to send it to the Service Centre in Penang. And since I bought it online, I had to do it myself…. I thought as a premium reseller, they had to take my unit and send it for me… charging me, of course. But... no can do.

Well, I was a little riled up by then, but not because of what that guy said but because I need my computer. Minus a computer at work feels kind of debilitating. I told him I needed to order one but not from them since Education pricing from Apple gives a substantial discount. No way I was going to buy from them if they cannot offer me a goodwill service in my time of need, for one which I would have happily paid if it could be resolved then.

Anyway, I lugged my Mac to my friend’s place, thinking that I would try it out again before making my order. To cut the long story short, it takes a very little convincing (but I still needed that little push sometimes) for me to open it up. So armed with the WWW …. (yup! hurray for WWW! Who needs technicians when you have the treasure trove in the WWW?)... and some screw drivers, we opened up my dead Mac. I read the instructions, watched a video, well parts of it… but all from the WWW and removed the battery….. Then we plugged the MacBook back on. The familiar whirring sound came back.. the lights started blinking… and the screen came alive. So much for the need of a trained technician!!!! The dead Mac was resurrected.

And so, here I am typing this out on my resurrected Mac. I probably will need to get a replacement for my current Mac as it is rather slow now. But at least for now, it is still alive and clicking away. I am also feeling a little comforted that tomorrow my ‘trusted companion’ will still be accompanying me to work. 8) I rarely go to work without it.

Learning how to solve a problem is so easy these days. There are so many ‘teachers’ available out there. If reading the instructions is not enough, there are always the instructional videos. And if those are not enough, you can always send a SOS for help. Someone is very likely to answer your ‘distress’ call. But while the instructions and the tools are there, a more important ingredient to make this work is our attitude. The attitude of wanting to learn, try, explore and not being afraid to fail trying…. those are even more important. A great deal of learning takes place when they are there.

Today, I had all the learning models at my disposal.. blended, flipped, personalised, etc, etc. I collaborated too... Sometimes a little 'collaboration goes a long way in achieving greater things. I have always believed that no man is an island. We need people... We can do way better if we can learn to cooperate, collaborate... One of the best ways to become better is to share. Elon Musk has recently become one of those people I admire because he opened up his patents for Tesla's electric cars. It's free for all to use, adapt, modify. His goal... the demise of the gasoline cars!!! 8)

Education is one thing… but learning??? Well, I had a meaningful learning process from this episode. My learning environment was blended. It was a mix of prior knowledge and multiple platforms as resources. It was flipped because my instruction did not come the traditional way. And I had an amazing personalised learning experience because the whole episode served a need that I had. To top it all up.. I am still learning. Yup! Lifelong learning at work here too. 8)

Isn’t that awesome? On a day, too, I resolved an iPad problem for a colleague too!!


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pirate Box...

Traditional is subjective. This is a continuation of the last post. Time at school to really try out new stuff is not something that I have in abundance. With less than ideal teaching periods and classroom size, it is hard to keep up. Most of my free time is spent either marking students' work or seeing students. That means whatever I try... it is mostly with 'stolen time'. I need to be fluid too. A lot of the stuff I do are not the norm. And I rely a lot on whatever I pick up from my readings and also intuition. That means I improvise as I go along.

This is my pirate box. It's not something I made on my own. Other Half is constantly trying out stuff and sometimes I am the recipient of what his projects after he is done trying. In the pic is the TP-Link's TL-MR3040. PC Mag reports it as one of the lightest modem routers around. You can read all about it here. A pirate box??? It sounds like there is a romantic notion attached to it.... perhaps even something illegal.

Lol! Mystery, adventure in the air.... But I tell my students that my pirate box is my very own internet. This means I don't have to depend on the world wide web. Firmware required to hack the router is available on the net. Just follow the instructions given and you get your own pirate box. My good friend did just that and now she has a working pirate box too!

The physical setup is rather simple. A modem router (the TP-Link) and a thumb drive. Mine is a 32GB white mini which fits rather snugly into the design of the router. The whole thing is really quaint and being battery powered means freedom from power sockets... well, a short one. But these days, with solar powered battery packs, the possibilities are endless.

I have started using it in my class... In the coming months I will probably be using it to complement my lessons. It will be very useful when you don't want to be bogged down by internet connection issues or if you don't want your students to wander off to other sites in the net during class time. It saves time too as you can put in the guided and selected resources for students as reference. Schools like mine run on very short teaching periods... 35 minutes and if I minus the travelling time to get to the lab.. I have very much less time than the officially prescribed one.

Anyway, I recently went paperless with the pirate box. My first try. I uploaded my listening handout and got my students to view them via their chrome books. There is no need to keep listening exercise printouts. What the students did was basically log into my pirate box network and downloaded the PDF file. They basically read from the screen while the audio texts were being played. My second try was ebooks in pdf format. I had this whole collection of books about the solar system uploaded into my pirate box. I plan to use this as a form of digital library in class for students who finish their work early and have a little extra time on their hands.

I can see quite a number of uses for the pirate box in class... apart from ebooks and digital handouts, there are podcasts, video clips. Even the chat box might find some use.

As for other applications... This would be great as a content provider for camps, meetings and conferences. A small private network, dedicated to a specific purpose, for a specific group of people. A private network can be very useful at times.

It's about time we start BYOT/D. Engagement and relevance. Our textbooks are too static for that. The world is moving and changing so fast. I was just telling my kids today that when I was their age, we learned that creatures who lived in the deepest parts of the oceans were not were evolved... primitive and all that.

I have learned in the past year that there is an amazing diversity of marine life in the deepest oceans. The thing is these creatures have not made themselves available in the past cos the submersibles sent down have been chasing them away with their clunking sounds. And I didn't learn that through the papers or books... I could go on and on about the new things which I have been learning of late... Technology does make a difference.

I taught my boy almost 10 years ago about the rovers on Mars. Then somewhere along the way, I lost touch. I recently took another look at the topic and to my amazement so much has been achieved in less than a decade. We are now knocking at the possibilities of landing humans on Mars... Never dreamt of that happening in my lifetime.

Like I mentioned in my last post. I am luckier than most. I have a supportive head who gives me lots of room to try. And I have a friend who shares my enthusiasm in using technology in the classroom. It is nice to be able to exchange notes... collaborate.

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...