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...

 

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 in this area. 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....