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Here’s What Happens When You

22 Mar

unplugfor a Week

After reading a blog entry entitled the world UNPLUGGED, I was inspired to write up a small study of my own to conduct with my students during a service trip I was leading during spring break. After all, we were going to be in the middle of nowhere with no Internet access. I was curious to see whether the experience would be enhanced by the fact that we were going to be unplugged from the rest of the world.

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I presented the study to the students who were taking part in the Alternative Service Experience during Spring Break and they all agreed to take part. We were to spend one week volunteering with Eye on the Rainforest, staying at Las Casas de la Selva, in Patillas, Puerto Rico. Using recycled paper, we created journals to write our reflections. Students were to write one entry just before leaving, one in the middle of the week, and one at the end of the trip. At Las Casas de la Selva, we organized the sheds and wood workshop, deconstructed an old roof, and even dug a ditch for a new floor. I was mostly in charge of cleaning and organizing the library. The days were long and the work was strenuous. In the evenings we were all pretty tired but we still managed to find time to reflect and share on our daily activities.

aliadahlanimagebefore leavingon FacebookThe first entry that the participants had to write was about the fears, uncertainties, and misgivings they were having in the face of no Internet access once we arrived to our destination. At the airport in San Juan, upon landing, I reminded the participants to send their last messages and to sign off.

Their comments were not surprising and mirrored my own fears. They were all wondering whether they would feel alienated, lonely, lost without their familiar surroundings, their constant check ins with families and friends, their cherished connections, and their daily routines. They felt that their world without texting and IM-ing would be lost and unbearable. Some feared missing their loved ones and wondered how the week will pass without their one constant, their IPhones.

coquiHowever Las Casa de la Selva was a feast for the eyes and the soul. It is easy to forget about the world when one is in the midst of majestic trees, with the Puerto Rican coquí frogs lulling us into slumber with their songs from dusk through dawn.

During the middle of our stay, after having had time to relax on a beautiful beach and visiting Old San Juan, students’ reflections on being unplugged were so rich and encouraging. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how happy and relieved they felt without the technology. Most expressed comments that said they felt they had more time, lived more mindfully, and felt more connected and alive than ever. When one student admitted she felt so relieved and had not realized how enslaved she was by her IPhone, others echoed in agreement.

Following are some of the comments from their journals

In the beginning…

I will have so many messages when I come back. I am not looking forward to that.

It is going to be very hard to go from Skype-ing my boyfriend every day to no contact at all. 

I am nervous about not being able to get online, mainly because I wouldn’t be “in the loop” of social media…

The last time I was Internet-less and phone – less was… I can’t remember if that ever happened.

Midway into the week…

This isn’t so bad, but I’m sure I’m missing a lot of emails and group messages. 

I feel extremely relieved. I have absolutely no desire to check on social media or communicate with anyone other than my mom and sister.

Who knew how nice it would be to have a free pass to not have to respond to texts messages and emails, given that everyone knows I am in the middle of the rainforest.

When we got to PR I was so caught up in the excitement of being in a new and beautiful place that I forgot all about my phone. I never once wished to get on social media during the trip. I feel as though the experience of being in the rainforest would not have been as great if we did have the internet with us, because we would have been heavily distracted and incapable of fully absorbing the moment.

In the End…

Only 6 notifications popped up on my phone in Charlotte. I do have 80 Facebook notifications and about two dozen emails. It actually isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. 

For some reason, social media has a way of making you think that you need to be keeping up with hundreds of people. We have been conditioned to think that we are missing out if we don’t scroll through a day’s worth of Instagram, Facebook and even Twitter postings every single day, and for some every single hour.

Man, Social media has been exhausting me and I didn’t even know it.

Now that I am back, I noticed that I wasn’t checking social media nearly as much as I was before the trip. When we got to PR I deleted all my social media and I only re-downloaded Snapchat and Instagram once we got back home, leaving behind Facebook and twitter. It feels good to be less attached to my phone now.

If people didn’t have the expectation that I will receive their messages and calls immediately and respond shortly after, I wouldn’t check my phone on a regular basis at all. I think it’s important to live in the moment, and phones greatly hinder our ability to do that.

Constantly being connected to an entire network of people is a lot to deal with and can be stressful. Although there are many benefits to having a smartphone, going on a Digital Sabbath has made me question if they are really worth it.  

Now, I am not nearly as amused by social media as I was before, and have greatly lowered my Internet activity.

Disconnecting from technology even for one day a week has its benefits. It allows us to recharge and refresh. It gives us time to reconnect with nature, to be fully present, and to awaken to our dreams and goals. During this one week Digital Sabbath,the students were given a glimpse of what life is without the constant barrage of emails, texts, calls, and notifications, that buzz and ping us 24 hours a day. Unplugging for one week or for one day shows we are plugged in to what truly matters.

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.

Mobile Technology for Teaching and Learning

10 Nov

Necessity breeds invention, the old saying goes, and in the case of bringing education to those with limited educational resources, and closing the gaps between those who have access and those who don’t, this necessity is turning people’s attention to mobile technology for creative and innovative ways to learn from one another and the Internet.

In developing countries, poor infrastructure, and the relatively low cost, availability, and mobility of mobile phones have resulted in mobile technology as the way to get online and connect locally and globally. It is why mobile technology is the tool that innovative and concerned citizens are turning to in an effort to connect students and teachers to educational texts and a global community of educators.

Africa is a great example of such a scene where mobile learning is being used to reach marginalized populations.

In Ghana, with the help of e-readers, villages have access to hundreds of books that could never be physically sent to a library.

Despite its limitations – unavailability of local language books in some countries– e-readers have opened up the world to curious learners and can be a very effective and inexpensive way to eradicate illiteracy globally.

Nigeria is another example where UNESCO is piloting a program with English Language teachers who send daily messages on how to teach English to teachers throughout Nigeria. UNESCO has received feedback from participating teachers that the support is changing their teaching style and helping them to improve.  As a result, teachers are part of a global village of educators where they can collaborate and share their concerns, challenges and successes.

Screen shot 2013-11-06 at 8.18.58 AMIn Kenya, Eneza is a group of individuals who wanted to ensure that every child in Kenya has access to information no matter where they live and how poor they were. They decided to put together the information and content that is relevant to the local context on mobile devices and make it available to students everywhere. In addition, they provide tips and tricks for teachers and parents to help their children learn.

Innovation hubs, like the iHub in Kenya, are places where teachers and tech savvy can meet and optimize the use of simple technologies for teaching and learning. Creating more innovative spaces like the iHub in Kenya, providing e-readers with native language textbooks, delivering qualified trained online communities of teachers for remote areas, are some of the low cost effective ways to meet necessity, breed innovation whilst creating global communities of learners and teachers.

Teaching English with the Vlog Brothers

2 Oct

Video is an excellent medium for use in the language classroom. It can be used either for teaching or revising. Research shows that students are more likely to retain complex information when it is presented in video format. Furthermore, students take ownership of their learning as they make decisions about when and where to view their videos and how often.  With John and Hank Green, the two brothers who are the creators of Vlogbrothers, students are entertained as they are introduced to simplified complex subjects thus creating a learning experience that is motivating, memorable and engaging.

The origin of the Vlogbrothers YouTube Channel was a one-year project that the two brothers started in 2007 when they committed to update each other every weekday of the year using a video no more than 4 minutes long.

Since then, Vlogbrothers, where the brothers post video blogs on different subjects, has grown extensively to include many projects such as “Crash Course“,  where John Green teaches you US History and Hank Green teaches you Chemistry.

Check out the following video for a taste of John and Hank!

Another note-worthy project started by the brothers is Project for Awesome where individuals are invited to create videos about their favorite charity. What a great class project that would make!

John and Hank are very popular with middle and high school students. As the teacher, however, if you do plan to use their videos, it is vital that you watch all the material to be shown to students beforehand.

Google Apps for Language Teaching

14 Sep

workshopphoto Below are the slides from my presentation at the Google in Education Vietnam Summit. It is always a great opportunity to gather as a group of educators, to reflect on the latest technological tools and to share ideas and strategies of effective technology integration in the classroom.

Google Apps offer teachers the necessary tools to give learnerGoogle Apps in Language Teachings opportunities for critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration – essential skills needed for every learner in today’s digital age.

To learn more about Google Apps in Education, check out Google in Education.

Google in Education Summit is coming to Vietnam

25 Aug

My school has been using Google Apps for its administrative and educational needs since it started out two years ago. This year it is hosting the Google in Education Summit on September 14 and 15, 2013. This will be the first time that a Google Apps event comes to Vietnam.

Teachers, IT specialists, administrators and anyone who is interested in teaching and learning at any level and to any age group would benefit from attending the Google in Education Summit in Hanoi. For more information on the sessions and presenters and to register for this event, go to: http://vietnam.appsevents.com/

Vietnam Google SummitGoogle in Education Summits are held all over the world and usually include Google certified engineers, teachers and trainers. In addition, teachers who use Google Apps in their classroom will also be presenting. I will be one of the presenters at the Vietnam Summit.

I have been using Google Apps in teaching and for collaborative projects with English language learners of every age and level. This has enhanced my teaching and communication with students, families and colleagues. It has also resulted in an instruction that goes beyond the classroom.

Google Apps in Action

In a Flipped Classroom environment, learners do the learning at their own pace, from anywhere, and do the practice and application of the learning with their teacher and classroom peers. Using Google Apps, this is how a Flipped Classroom learning experience would look like:

  • The learner watches a video or listens to a lesson on YouTube or reads an article shared on Google Docs.
  • The student then answers some questions and records them in either Google Docs or Forms. He/she can also work collaboratively with another student on a shared document to prepare an in-depth response.
  • In class, the teacher responds to inquiries. As such, the time spent in the classroom is more about interaction with the teacher who can then address personal learning needs and styles by giving students one on one time and by providing them with different methods of showing their learning.
  • The student has an opportunity to reflect on his/her learning through sharing and collaboration with other classmates. He/she may also ask classmates to edit their written work. This collaboration can take place with classmates not only from their classroom but also with students from anywhere in the globe.
  • The final learning product is then published in an e-portfolio in the form of a blog, a drawing or a recording.

It is easy to see why a Flipped Classroom environment is sweeping the education community worldwide. It is a versatile, engaging manner of teaching that gives students control of their learning and uses teacher contact time more efficiently. Plus, it is inexpensive for schools to implement especially when schools adopt Google Apps.

In my next post, I will share some of the highlights from the summit. In the meantime, you can read more about the summit by visiting the event’s website.

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.

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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.