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Visiting Silicon Savannah

10 Jan

I have just returned from Kenya where I was fortunate enough to spend time with young Kenyans who are undertaking great ventures in and around Nairobi.

Kenya, as an emerging and developing country is jam-packed with social enterprises of all kinds – but especially in the field of technology. Today, it has earned the name “Silicon Savannah” because of the number of innovative tech start-ups that have been developing and flourishing over the past few years.

What really stands out when talking with young Kenyans is their tenacity and motivation. Rather than letting go when a goal is too difficult to realize, they create the circumstances needed to make it happen. Take for example the Nairobi Developer School.

The Nairobi Developer School is run by 19-year-old Martha who wanted to go to the States to learn all about programing. She was accepted by Hacker School in New York but was refused a U.S. tourist visa. Instead of giving up on that dream, she instead devised a project where not only she, but also other women, can come and learn about programming.  The Nairobi Developer School Program lasts three months. It even offers financial support to women who cannot afford it.

There are many infrastructural shortcomings that make connectivity to the web unpredictable in Kenya: unreliable wireless connections, shortage of power, or devices that can’t share connections; however that has not deterred Kenya’s tech savvy. The need for reliable connection in an unreliable environment led to the creation of the BRCK. .  The BRCK was designed by Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company that builds open source software and tools that bring information to people in remote areas and in times of crisis. The team, composed of engineers, developers and technologists from Kenya, wanted to design a tool that would ensure connectivity where connectivity isn’t possible. Watch this video to learn more about the BRCK.

Another noteworthy project that I spent time at is the Montessori Plus Center in Nairobi where the Montessori method is being used to teach students who are blind or visually impaired.

Many people do not know this but Montessori’s ideas for teaching children resulted from her work with a French psychologist names Edouard Seguin who primarily worked with children who were blind. In fact, Anne Sullivan who was Helen Keller’s teacher used the Montessori model of instruction to teach Helen!

I spent some time at the school planning, discussing, and exchanging ideas on how best to prepare the space and the curriculum for the needs of the children. Although I am now in another continent, the school remains close to my heart.

All in all my visit in Kenya was truly inspiring, embodying the very essence of our resilience as human beings.

Feeding the Hungry One Word at a Time

1 Jun
For the past two years, I have been using Freerice with my English Language Learners. We usually kick off the Freerice Vocabulary Feeding Project in November just before the American Thanksgiving Holiday.

Screen shot 2013-05-26 at 4.39.04 PM

Freerice is a free online educational website that is maintained by the United Nations World Food Program. John Breen, a Harvard professor, founded it in 2007.  He hoped Freerice would aid in both ending world hunger and educating as many people as possible. Since its inception, Freerice has won many awards for its ability to both raise funds and awareness about the fight against hunger.

Freerice is an intelligent game in that it adjusts to the level of the learner, offering multiple choice questions on the skill of their choice: Math, English vocabulary or grammar, SAT Prep, Geography, Art, German, French, Spanish and Italian.  A virtual bowl fills with grains of rice with every correct answer they provide.

My students love using Freerice because they feel they are not only learning new words but more importantly they are helping others.  They also love its competitive aspect and all try to be the top player of the week or the top-leading group.

I love Freerice because it makes my students eager about learning new words. Its ability to adjust to a learner’s level and to recycle mistakes is a great way to ensure that exposure to new words is being met. Using Freerice gives me the opportunity to discuss issues such as world hunger and being of service with my different grade levels. Integrating Freerice in my teaching is not only exposing my students to new words but also teaching them to be compassionate. It supports my ultimate goal: teach children to grow up to be global responsible citizens who speak English among other languages.

When my students show Freerice to their parents, I get emails requesting membership into our group from moms who want to improve their vocabulary. I have so many of my students now using Freerice at home with their own parent.

Freerice Vocabulary Words - One Step Further

Freerice Vocabulary Words – One Step Further

One of the ways I use Freerice in my classroom is to create a database of vocabulary words. For a language learner to truly learn a new word, the learner has to actually be able to use that word.  Knowing therefore involves not only learning the meaning of that word but also how to pronounce it, spell it, and use it in the correct context. With that in mind, following each Freerice session, I ask my students to choose one word that they will commit to learn for that week. They then add the word to a spreadsheet I have set up in Google Docs.  These words are then shared with everyone in the group and are used for games such as Hangman, crosswords, word jumbles and fill in the blanks. In having my ten students submit one word each, we, as a class, increase our vocabulary by ten words – words that we get to use over and over in different contexts.

Courtesy of Vietnam News

When the whole school competed in Freerice for a month, the students, along with their parents, were so focused on filling bowls of rice, they spent many evenings after school on the website. The experience lent itself to great dialogues on world hunger and effective ways of learning a new language, a dialogue involving parents and children that went beyond the classroom walls.  Its success led to newspaper coverage in Vietnam News, Hanoi’s English newspaper.

Whether you use Freerice for extra credit, to engage students in collaborative projects with other schools and classrooms, for service credits, or to keep students that finish their work early engaged, there are no drawbacks to incorporating this website into your teaching.

While it may not end world hunger, when you use Freerice, students become sensitized about the world and specifically about world hunger. More importantly, students are empowered when they see how they can make a difference and contribute to a good cause irrelevant of their age, race, language or location.

The Powers of Photography

18 May

Where memory fails, Google remembers! In today’s technology driven world, search engines dig out information about us even when we no longer have a recollection of them ever taking place. That is how I came across a project I took part in, while teaching English in North Carolina, entitled CommonVisions.

Essentially the project consisted of taking pictures using disposable cameras. (Do these even exist now?) There were 20 participants from 8 different countries. The youngest was 12 years old and the oldest around 60. We met twice a month.

It was 2001. At that time, taking pictures meant using film photography and one had to wait about a week to see their ‘developed’ pictures. We were so filled with excitement upon receiving the envelope with our name on it. We would open it hastily and go through our pictures choosing one to share with our group that evening and leaving the rest to savor later.

This was not a photography course. For most, like me, we had no prior lessons on photography nor were any techniques taught. We were told to simply click when it felt right. We were given the medium of photography to capture that which we deemed important and to then use the photographs to dialog about race, ethnicity and culture.

As the English as an Additional Language Specialist, my job consisted of teaching English to Hispanic children of migrant worker. To achieve this goal, I worked at bridging the gap between parents of these children, the mainstream classroom teachers, and the school administration.

Mona.MobilHomes.small

America: the land of opportunity, the paradox of our time-
                                                                               George Carlin

During my time with CommonVisions, I took many pictures of my students, their families and their homes.  These photographs allowed me to share and discuss the realities of migrant workers living and working in the States with project participants and co-workers, resulting in a much more profound understanding of the students I teach, their language needs and daily challenges.

CommonVisions is one of the many projects that exist where photography is used to bring about social change and to remind us of our unity as human beings. Kids with Cameras and PhotoVoice are the other two projects that I know of with a similar vision and mission.

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy. They are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom - Marcel Proust

Let us be grateful to people
who make us happy.
They are the charming gardeners
who make our souls blossom.
Marcel Proust

With today’s ease of capturing photos, doing a project along these lines has a worthy place in any type of classroom, regardless of age and level, and especially in an English Language Learner setting, where students’ background and diversity lends itself to an array of discourse.

Whether you use the pictures for students to tell a story, give an opinion, or simply as a starting point to discuss issues  that unite us as a race, this type of activity will build connections that will once again leap out of the classroom, breaking all barriers, while forming responsible global citizens along the way.

Photography is an effective tool that can ignite a child’s curiosity, give an outlet to a young struggling student, build communities of learners and artists, and even transform lives. I would encourage each teacher to experiment with photography in his or her classroom and each parent to give his or her child a camera.  Why not pick up a camera today and start your own dialogue!


 

Collaborative Projects Across the World using Skype

15 Mar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATeachers have little or no time to plan collaborative projects outside of their own classroom. In addition, they sometimes fear the training needed to use certain technological tools and are always reminded that due to budget cutbacks, there is no money to plan for collaboration – especially for projects across continents.

In the next few posts, I will share with you how I have been collaborating with teachers on different projects with very little time, at no cost, and with minimal training for the tool used.

It is 10 a.m. on Saturday. I’ve just come back from the market. I get on Skype and I’m greeted by a first grade classroom in North Carolina, 19 little eager faces, in their pajamas, ready for a good night story from their reader across the world, Miss Abinader. I read the book to them and we play a guessing game with clues on the mystery of where their reader is exactly. We learn to say hello and goodbye in Vietnamese then it is time to sign off. These first graders have had a few other teachers read to them from across America and now they had a teacher read to them all the way from Asia.

This project was organized around the Read Across America program. The National Education Association created this program to celebrate reading. It takes place March 2nd, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday. On or around that date, schools, libraries and community centers across the United States celebrate reading by bringing together kids and books. One teacher wanted to add the multicultural and different time zone experience to the reading celebration and thus began our collaborative and interactive project.

The planning involved was minimal. It consisted of a few emails and the exchanging of Skype names. The gains however were plentiful in that the students participated in a diverse multicultural experience where reading was confirmed as a practice that is used and enjoyed by children all over the world.

In today’s technology driven lifestyle, it is so simple to make Read Across America be Read Across the World. In so doing, we will be one step closer to creating and building a global community of active learners and educators.