Friday, 31 December 2010

Future Concerned

I'm really worried about returning to the UK in April. I won't have a job and will have nowhere to live. Yes, I do own a small property but it's rented out - it's how I've been able to sustain myself while volunteering. Unfortunately it isn't near any likely employers.  It brings in a small income which might be enough to pay for a bedsit in a cheaper town but I'll have to get a job quickly.  In the longer term I'm hoping to train to be a teacher in the Autumn via a Post Graduate Certificate of Education at a university somewhere, so I'll need work from April until September at least.

There's no chance of picking up my old job again - they're pruning staff right now. And the work I did with safety-critical programmable controllers is too specialised to be much use in many places. The employment scene in the UK has changed significantly for the worse while I've been away. Hmm. Interesting times! I'm looking into options and possibilities. At the end of the day I will survive one way or another, and I have to remember that survival is not always an option for everyone on this planet.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Collecting Blogs

I mentioned in my post yesterday that I had a little project on the go - an easy way of sharing my collection of 400 education blogs.  It took me the rest of the day just getting it into a reasonable shape and finally I announced it on Twitter. A few people have picked it up already - fantastic!

Why would anyone want 400 blogs, I hear you ask! Well, it'd be impossible to read them all, of course. I have a collection of ten Must Reads which I just about keep up with, but the rest are invaluable for searching. Because they're written by teachers and education admins the search results are very relevant if you're researching that field. And actually, just choosing to read a few randomly can often throw up nuggets of info. Great for Professional Development and inspiration!

This is one way I can give a little back for all the gems I've been given by the folk on Twitter over the last 6 months.

If you'd like to know more, see Ed Blog Collection

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas is not just for Christmas!

I've had worse Christmases but I've also had better! It was always going to be a quiet day but I hadn't planned on it being quite this quiet! I was unwell, you see, nursing a bad headache and sore throat; just feeling very run down with no energy. I had been invited along to my landlady's evening meal but, in the end, spent most of the day in my room, getting hot and cold, lying in sweat on my bed, doing not a lot. The evening thing had grown from being a sombre gathering of four to a lively gathering of twelve and I just couldn't face the noise and inevitable party games and loud people. No doubt I would have been ridiculed for being quiet and not wanting to join in. On the other hand, getting sloshed on Arrack sounded attractive!

Some of the white people here - they are not elderly and yet they may as well be! It's cheaper to live in Sri Lanka than in the West so there are a few expats around, spending six months a year here, or here permanently. And, as far as I can tell, they do virtually nothing; they're completely self-absorbed. I guess it's just a different way of living but, to me, it's such a waste.  I mean, just spend an hour a day helping in schools, or helping kids with homework, or doing something of social benefit. I guess it's just different values, and I shouldn't judge, but I can't help myself.  

Meanwhile, I've upset my landlady by saying I wasn't going to her party - she'd catered for exact numbers, she said. Maybe she thought it was just me being my usual anti-social self. Well, maybe she was partly right!

Best was phoning home and having a chat with my son and daughter for an hour. I also phoned my parents. My father was telling me that as a child he'd lived a couple of years in Ceylon when his father was stationed in Colombo, and he remembered how the monsoon season could be - heavy downpours coming at the same time each day, usually at 4pm he recalled, just as he returned home from school.  Here, they were coming regularly at 5pm for a while - perfect for drenching me on my way home from work!  But that was a month ago. We seem to be having mostly dry mornings and mostly wet afternoons at the moment.  And the mosquitoes love it!

We did have some other Christmas celebrations here - on Thursday, Adopt Sri Lanka had arranged a day in Galle having a few party games and going for a pizza. It was good fun, overall. I did spend four hours in a van with a coughing Field Officer - I reckon it's a 100% certainty he's the one to blame for what I've now got. Thanks, mate!  Actually, there seems to be a lot of it going around, so it could have come from anywhere.

Anyway, today I'm feeling a bit better. I'll probably wander up to town to the Polla, and buy some fruit and veg.  I also have a  little project on  - I've collected 400 educational blogs, partly for me, partly for the teachers I teach, and partly for the folk on Twitter. I now have to plan how to make the file available so that everyone can subscribe, should they want to. I'll tell you more tomorrow.

So, that's it. You'll notice that religion doesn't feature largely in my life. That's because I have no religious beliefs. I always feel a bit of a hypocrite wishing folk "Merry Christmas" at this time of year because of the religious connotations. But, in so far as it means goodwill to everybody, we should be wishing that all year round, really, shouldn't we? Christmas is not just for Christmas! But I guess that once a year is better than nothing.

Christmas, in so far as it means buying frivolous junk, over-eating, over-drinking, and doing everything to excess, should remain just for Christmas. Or better, never!

And, bringing it home about the over-indulgent side of Christmas, I just spotted an advert in the Washington Post "how to stop your brain from over-eating" next to an article about desperate Ethiopians risking everything so that their families have enough to survive.

Anyway, hope you all had good Christmases, and may the good bits continue for the next 12 months!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Poya Day, Lunch and Mosquitoes

Today, Monday 20th December 2010, is a Poya Day - a Full Moon day. You wouldn't know it - last night was very grey and overcast so there was no moon to be seen, but I'll take their word for it. It means today's a holiday for many workers, Buddhist or otherwise. The supermarket might be open but precious little else.

In practical terms, getting lunch will be tricky because all the little food places in town will be closed. I hesitate to call them cafés or restaurants because they're not that up-market. In fact you wouldn't want to be seen dead in most of them if they were in the West. I'd like to say that appearances are deceptive; that the hygiene standards are way better than they look, but, if I said that, I'd be lying.  I've been lucky: even in these tired, dingy and somewhat dirty places, and with water from the taps and out of hand-washed (no detergent) glasses, I've managed to survive without any stomach problems. So far. Touch wood. So perhaps the standards really are better than they appear or I have a particularly good constitution. Either way, today I'll get my 'rice packet' from the only place serving them - a place that I only ever go into at a pinch because it's more scruffy, dingy and dirty-looking than the usual places, and is unquestionably populated by more than its fair share of flies. Nice, it is not!

Talking of flies: mosquitoes. Damned mosquitoes!  The ones here are different from the ones in India - they are smaller and faster and almost impossible to see and swat. I wonder if the business of being smaller is an evolutionary thing - it's more breezy here by the coast so if you're small and fast perhaps you can avoid being blown off your prey... Doesn't quite explain the monster cockroaches that are around, but anyway... The mosquitoes are a bit slower when blood-satiated so they're easier to whack, but of course, by then, they are my-blood-satiated so it's a bit late to teach them a lesson. In my room I keep a can of Mortein 'Mosquito and Fly Killer' at my side, and keep the fly-screen doors shut. I suspect that the house-keeper (who cleans my room and makes my bed once a week. What luxury!) keeps the doors open while she's in here and then blasts the place with my can of spray - it's always noticeably emptier after room-cleaning days. Not that it makes any difference to the mosquitoes. They're immune to this stuff unless you actually drown them in it.

I've used those electric plug-in devices which, like the spray, permeate the air with chemicals, but all they do is give me a headache and do nothing to the flies.  Then there are the smouldering coil things which probably also contain nasty carcinogens. They certainly stink the place out for days on end - the smoke is enough to dissuade me from staying in the room, let alone the flies.

When I was little there used to be those rolls of fly-paper which you could get and dangle from a nail or light fitting. They were covered in sticky goo so were not too nice when wrapped around your head, as inevitably happened to children, and particularly unpleasant when fly-coated. But that's the point - they were fly coated! Somehow flies were drawn to them, got stuck, and died a miserable, lingering death. Perfect!  Trouble is, no one here's heard of them so that's a non-starter.

What I've found does work is Citronella Oil. You dab it onto exposed skin and the smell keeps the mosquitoes away. It's quite strong stuff and so some people mix it with olive oil to thin it a little. I don't do that because I'm too lazy to track down a suitable container. I use it neat, and, fortunately, it doesn't seem to have damaged my skin that I notice. You need to reapply it every few hours which is a bit of a nuisance, but it's cheap and doesn't smell too bad.  Spray or lotion with 'Deet' in it is the other thing that works, but I haven't found that in the local shops, and the stuff in the UK is quite expensive and short-lasting.

I could have a net above my bed but I haven't done that. And anyway, if I'm in the room writing this blog, reading or surfing the Internet, I don't want to do it under a breeze-sapping net.  The mosquitoes around here are not the malaria-bearing ones. They're probably the dengue-fever-bearing ones but I'm hoping that's not quite as bad. Do I take any prophylactic medicines? Nope - being here for such a long time, I wouldn't want to fill my body with such chemical nasties. I'll be doing quite enough of that when I eat my mouth-numbingly-spicy rice 'n' curry this lunchtime!

R-i-g-h-t! Time for a shower, shave, and then breakfast...

Later: Maybe you'll be pleased to hear that I decided to go further afield for lunch and managed to get a 'lunch packet' made in front of my eyes and in fairly wholesome conditions :)

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Trumpet blowing

These are some comments from my teacher-students, published in ASL's latest newsletter.  I'm pleased that they're all positive and confirm that I'm on the right track. They are from a handful of the forty Sri Lankan teachers who come along to my classes in their own time for a spot of training in the use of computers. Of course, those teachers who don't enjoy my classes don't come and therefore won't have had the opportunity to leave comments. And any negative comments have been thrown in the bin anyway!
Yes, I am joking :)

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Why Do Women Have Small Feet?

Q: Why do women have small feet?
A: So they can stand close to the kitchen sink!

In one of my morning stints at the school I help out at we were talking about careers. This was a mixed class of ten fourteen-year-olds, Muslim children, four boys and six girls. We had read a chapter about a girl who wanted to become a Textile Engineer but her parents hadn't been keen.

I asked my students what they thought of the girl's choice and was staggered to hear that not one of them thought it was sensible! Why? Engineering is not a suitable job for women. Why do you think that? The work is too heavy, only men are up to the job! I explained that engineers are professionals, work with computers, drawing-boards and at desks, go to meetings, research and design. Rarely do they get their hands dirty and by no means was it heavy labour. They still didn't accept it. The boys said that women wouldn't concentrate enough, that they'd always be thinking of their children or about cooking or shopping, and the girls agreed! When I asked what a suitable job for a woman would be, the answer was unanimously teaching or health care. Why these were better for scatty-brained women I've no idea! And this was from a class where the girls were far more academically able than the boys, certainly in English, and probably in other subjects too.

I did my best to convince them that women were easily the equal of men in engineering. They asked if there were many women engineers in the UK and I had to concede that, no, there weren't, but it wasn't because women weren't capable, it was because other jobs interested them more. I said that if engineering interested a girl then there was no reason why she shouldn't do it. I told them that I knew a few female software engineers and electrical engineers, and that they were just as good as men. The kids were surprised! If a girl wants to do engineering, is it fair that other people's opinions should prevent her? In the end I think I won a few girls around but the boys couldn't be persuaded.

I suppose that none of this should be surprising. Wind the clocks back fifty or sixty years and it would have been the same in the UK. There's modernisation all around yet culture and society are still quite traditional.

It was a great topic to debate because everyone got involved - even the shy ones were talking amongst themselves and were straining to hear my heretical views. Their views fascinated me too!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Edublog Award Nominations

I've learnt a huge amount from the many blogs I subscribe to (280 of them at the last count!) and of course I have my favourites. I'd like to nominate a few of them for these annual awards.

My Nominations for The 2010 Edublog Awards are:
  • Best individual blog : "What Ed Said" by Edna Sackson @whatedsaid
    Edna is a prolific writer of consistently thought-provoking posts and a true professional in her field. I have learnt a huge amount from her.
  • Best individual tweeter : Shelly Terrell @ShellTerrell
    Despite the funny voice and quirky love of pugs(!) this dynamic lady is one powerhouse of ideas and thoughts who is always working for the greater good of the education profession.
  • Best new blog : "About A Teacher" by Greta Sandler @gret
    Very human stories from a lady who is a natural educator with an obvious empathy for, and love of, her students.
  • Best class blog : "JuniorsJig" by Year 1/2 students in Melbourne Australia, Verona Gridley @vgridley and Michelle S @msmscott
    It's wonderful to see how these youngsters are developing a global awareness. The blog itself must be so informative for parents too.
  • Best resource sharing blog : "Free Technology for Teachers" by Richard Byrne @rmbyrne
    Day after day, Richard finds new resources and shares them with the world. No idea how he does it but I consistently find treasures in his blog and have a lot to thank him for.
  • Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion : #edchat
  • Best librarian / library blog : Jerry Blumengarten @cybraryman1 "Cybrary Man's Educational Web Sites". Although his website is a bit old-fashioned, I've found it to be a cornucopia of "good stuff". If ever I'm stuck I know I'll find a resource here. Great to have as a backup. And Jerry is one of life's good guys - always helpful.
  • Best school administrator blog : "The Principal of Change" by George Couros @gcouros
    George is passionate about the learning of his students as well as his staff, with a keen interest in edtech and enthusiasm to involve parents. A very honest and human guy too - a great Principal.

Having a little fun with Xtranormal:

Submarine Story
by: clivesir

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

About AdoptSriLanka

I realise that I've told you very little about AdoptSriLanka, the organisation I volunteer with, so this is my attempt at remedying that. They have a website ( where, with a bit of hunting, you can discover more, but I'll give you a brief summary. By the way, the website is not great but a replacement is being developed as we speak!

ASL was established in response to the devastation caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It was involved with the rebuilding of affected homes and, critically, schools in the south of Sri Lanka. As time passed the needs changed and it evolved so that now the major project is TWINS - a scheme to promote the learning of English in schools through cultural exchange with schools abroad. Funding for ASL's small team comes from various sources including the founder, Geoffrey Dobbs, a local businessman, and his friends and associates. ASL works with 80 mostly rural schools which are split almost equally between the two offices in Galle and Tangalle. I work in the Tangalle office with the TWINS Manager, Jo, and two Field Officers. Bec, the manager, is in the main Galle office, along with the accountant, Special Projects Officer, Logistics Manager, and two more Field Officers.

TWINS sets up long-term, meaningful connections between schools. The connections are maintained by the four Sri Lankan field officers who keep in constant communication with the local schools. The cultural exchange takes the form of projects, penpal letters, skype chats and more, and the field officers also help with mailing, printing, copying and delivering. The British Council occasionally fund reciprocal visits between the Sri Lankan and foreign teachers. On top of that, the Special Projects Officer coordinates children's events, teacher training workshops, conferences and a programme of teachers' professional development. So, as well as investing in the children, ASL also invests in the teachers. The children here and abroad both benefit through the cultural connections, and the local children also improve their language skills through meaningful dialogues.

My role is to work with the teachers by giving them training in the use of computers. The idea is that by building teachers' confidence, they'll be able to boost their own development and improve students' learning through use of resources on the Web. They'll be able to communicate electronically through email, Skype, social media (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs...). And, instead of using the field officers to write and send emails, edit photos, burn CDs and so on, they'll be able to do all that themselves using any existing computers in schools, or Internet cafés, or by coming into ASL's Tangalle office.

I do enjoy working with the teachers immensly but I found I was missing working with children (something I'd done previously in India) so I've been taking a bit of time out from ASL to help with spoken English at a small local Muslim school.

That's it in a nutshell! If you want to find out more about the twinning programme or are interested in the projects that the schools undertake then take a look at the ASL TWINS page. ASL are keen to partner up more schools so if you're a teacher and want to add a global dimension to your teaching, please get in touch!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Why I'm Uncomfortable

these kids are not shy in having their photo taken!
Perhaps I should explain why I'm uncomfortable working at the school while the two English teachers take time off. It's not that I can't handle it or don't enjoy it; it's the thought that my presence might be doing more harm than good. If the teachers are off because they know I'll stand in for them then the kids' learning will surely suffer. Certainly, my spoken English is way-better than theirs but that only benefits the kids if they can actually understand what I'm saying.  These teachers can explain things to the children in their own language - a huge advantage.  They are also following a structured curriculum and teaching plan - they know what comes next and how long they should spend on each activity. And being an effective teacher is not only about following a workplan, formal or informal - it's also about knowing your students, their culture, their home situations, pressures, hopes and fears.

In certain circumstances I'd also be concerned that I was taking away a local teacher's job, though that's not the situation here.

On top of that, I'm not qualified and they are, with all the benefits that being qualified brings.

As I see it, the kids are best served if I help with spoken English in the presence of the regular teachers, and having two adults present will give more individual attention and help keep the children on task.


Update 21/11/10
Both teachers returned to work last week. They told me they'd been ill, not taking time off because I was there. They understood the potential to take advantage of volunteers and my unease. These are two professional teachers and they offered to phone me when they were next off work. I know they understand, so when they're off again I'll probably go in anyway just to fill the gap for the kids.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Little School Up The Road

I've started working with the little Muslim School up the road from the office. Here are a few of the younger children. Just look at them - gotta love 'em!

You don't have to look hard to see the same enthusiasm, zest for life, dreams, aspirations, sense of fun, capacity to learn, liveliness, and potential as any kid in the West but I expect few will reach the same heights. Only a quarter will go on to A-Level and a fraction of those will go any higher.

This school has three computers - two are old and broken. I'm told the third works but there's no Internet and no computing teacher. More importantly, there's no electricity. There's no power for computers, or indeed the lighting, fans or photocopier, because the Department of Education won't pay the bill (the limited funds they do have seem to go to the bigger schools first), and the community is too poor to find the money. I wonder if it's pure coincidence that this is a mainly Tamil (minority) community. Computers are not the root problem, of course, just a symptom. Others include the fact that there don't appear to be enough teachers, there were certainly no locum teachers covering leave or sickness, the school buildings and facilities are poor, and the lack of health care affects attendance, as do various other family concerns.

I've been to the school three times. The first time, both English teachers were present. The second, only one. The third, neither. I couldn't understand the reasons for their absences but I'm meant to be assisting, not deputising. Last Thursday I ran five classes on my own! Luckily I could continue with the stuff I'd been doing previously but it'll be interesting to see how this works out.

Meanwhile I'm enjoying working with the kids immensely. On both days I start off with grades 9 and 10 and then swap to the younger children. One of the reasons I survive, I think, is because of the novelty of being a white person there - when that eventually wears thin they'll probably run rings around me!

On Thursday the older children were analysing pieces of English text to discover a person's job and reasons for doing it. We discussed what jobs they'd like to do as adults. The girls mostly wanted to be teachers and doctors. The boys wanted to be a singer, business man, scientist, civil engineer, CID (Criminal Investigation Dept) officer and more. All excellent goals. I hope they achieve them.

Their goals contrast markedly with those of the Indian kids I worked with before coming here. The best many hoped for was to become mothers or Tuc-Tuc drivers.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Presidential Visit

I heard that the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was in town again today so I nipped up to see what was going on. It turned out that there was going to be a ceremony to remember his father who died 43 years ago today. He was an MP and there's a newish-looking statute of him in the little park near where I work.

The security services were out in force again - police, army, navy, air-force, military police and loads of plain-clothed security guys. I positioned myself opposite the president's family home on the Matara Road from where it's a short walk past the Food City supermarket to the little park.  I managed to get a few photos as he, his wife, son and brother emerged from the gates and walked with fifty or so selected folk up to a marquee in the park.

As they moved up the road I kept up with the official photographers and somehow bypassed the security checks at the side of the road.  I found myself the only civilian anywhere near the president - all the locals and other onlookers were on the opposite side of the road! You can get an idea of where I was positioned in the videos below. A local later told me that the security people wouldn't challenge a white-skinned tourist like me because of their lack of English. Perhaps that's correct because I noticed another Westerner come past me later but I'd have thought it possible to communicate "Get over there, peasant!" nonverbally quite effectively. Whatever, it sounds a security weakness if ever I heard one!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Road Re-Surfacing Causes Tiredness

 While I was in the UK the Tangalle council decided to resurface Mediketiya Road - the road which runs from the town centre to the beach in front of my house, and Deepankara Road - the side road which joins it beside my house.  When I came back I found the roads had mud spread all over them and a big machine was being used to roll the dirt and vibrate it flat.  It all seemed pretty pointless because as soon as it dried it turned to dust and blew about the place, so they had to come back to damp it down and vibrate it again.

During two recent nights at about 1a.m. there was a raucous noise outside with droning horns, drumming and chanting. Apparently it was the Buddhist monks blessing the roads. Our two dogs didn't like it a lot and started howling in sympathy with all the other dogs up the street.

We have a wall right against Deepankara Road and the council was threatening to knock it down so that the road could be widened sufficiently to be called "two lane".  I'm surprised the wall didn't just come down on its own - the whole house was being shaken so much by the big vibrating roller. Anyway, it somehow stayed up, and they ran out of time to demolish it before today's 6th November deadline.

At nine o'clock yesterday night the trucks and heavy machinery started arriving. I thought they'd just park up for the night but no, that's when the real work started. The sound of machinery outside my house went on until 3a.m. and the shouting carried on until 5a.m. as the tarmac-ing continued up the road. And then the dogs started up again. This all comes on top of the jet-lag so, needless to say, I'm feeling shattered today!

I hadn't realised that the deadline was a true deadline and not the usual unrealistic product of fantasy. The roads HAD to be completed by today because His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in town to open them! I'd been aware of the flags and increased security around the streets but I'd thought it was because he was opening the new court buildings in the town - I hadn't made the connection with the roads.

Well, the roads were tarmac'd and opened on time, and they do look good, as all newly-surfaced un-muddied roads do. I just wonder about the necessity for the work at all - the roads were in a reasonable state already and the various bits of road furniture (telegraph and electricity poles mostly) didn't cause too much of a nuisance. Although the poles have now been moved back (hence all the power cuts we've been having recently), the space available is really no wider than before, and the poles did give some protection for the many pedestrians, cows, dogs and cats!  Maybe the new tarmac stretches a little wider but there's nowhere for people to walk apart from in the road; they can't honestly be called two-lane which is what the council is boasting.

I missed the opening ceremonies and the unveiling of the obligatory monuments but I did manage to take a few photos a couple of hours after the hubbub finished:

Flags in Tangalle centre

Heightened security

Mediketiya Road

Inevitable Monuments

Deepankara Rd


Deepankara Rd
(my house on left)

Not the busiest of roads!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Returning from the UK

Yesterday I returned from my three-week visit to the UK.  These times are always tough on the heart and this was no exception. It's private stuff so I'm not going to elaborate here but I will tell you that feelings and events have caused me to re-think what comes after my next six months in Sri Lanka.  I've decided that I've got to go back to the UK, at least for a few years, before I do any more volunteering so far from home.

What I'll do work-wise is a bit up in the air. I'm attracted by the thought of getting a Post Graduate Certificate of Education or some such qualification which will allow me to go into formal teaching and give me classroom skills I feel I'm lacking.  I have a good BSc in Electronics and Computer Science and I have a natural liking of maths-based subjects and things with a tech bent. From what I've heard, male teachers are in short supply as are people with maths, though I don't know if more teachers, generally, are needed. But at what level would I teach? And do I need to specialise? My time in India has given me 18 months-worth of teaching experience with children aged 6 to 20, and my time in Sri Lanka has also allowed me to work with adults. And again, prior to India, I had some part-time experience of helping children in a Special Needs school. If I must specialise then some of this experience will surely help me making a decision and help me getting a position. Will it be expensive and can I get paid while I train? There's much to research.

I'm also drawn to is the world of development aid - organisations such as Plan-UK etc which seek the eradication of poverty through child education. Education again.

But I know that the employment situation in the UK is dire... this is not a good time for a 55 year-old to be looking for a job and career change. In fact, this sounds like the perfect time to be going volunteering! 

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Soft Spots And Gaps

This is one of my favourite photographs taken during my 18 months in India. The little girl was a full-time student at SISP, the NGO I worked for. She was one of a family of four - three girls and one boy - all as bright as buttons but, like most of the kids there, very poor. The little lad in the photo was one of the children who'd graduated from SISP when he made it back into mainstream public education. He returned to SISP in the evenings for help with his homework. For many children the conditions at home are not conducive to doing homework (there may be no table, or the house is too crowded and noisy, or there's no encouragement at home. Or worse.)

I had a real soft spot for that little girl. She would come and help me whenever I needed an extra pair of hands. I have another photo of her with a hand-drill when I was making a noticeboard. She would gather in the drawing materials or turn off the computers without asking, even if it meant she'd be late for break. And she would be the one to come and give me a hug on the few occasions I was feeling a bit down. I didn't resist - I needed it as much as she did! 

In fact I had a soft spot for most of the children at SISP and also for the volunteers and staff. It was like one big family and I was part of it. I miss those times. Don't get me wrong, the people I work with now and my teacher-students are all great, but it's not the same. There's something missing.

The day after tomorrow I fly back to the UK for three weeks to see my real family and friends. When I return to Sri Lanka I plan to fill the gap by working some mornings at the little Muslim school up the road. They tell me they're looking forward to me starting there. So am I!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Introspection and Navel Gazing

In one and a half weeks I'll be flying back to the UK. The plan is to see family and friends (particularly my grown-up kids), get a new visa, and book a 6-month return flight back to Sri Lanka. Total time: three to four weeks. Thing is, I have no idea where I'll be staying or when I'll be doing what!

I've done this routine three times already - in April '09, Oct '09 and April '10, and it always feels like it's never enough time, it's never relaxed. It's certainly no holiday! Partly because I don't like the feeling of transience or unsettledness. And it's expensive - even if I'm staying with family or friends and they're kindly paying for everything, just the cost of a meal out or transport or petrol makes me think twice, especially when I can't help comparing with Asia. I've always been careful with money and now, when there's little coming in, I feel I have to be extra-careful even though I've budgeted my finances.

And there's the feeling that I'm reliant on others and that I'm expecting too much. Taking them for granted. I know it's their choice if they put me up but...

Before I set out volunteering I packed up my clothes, furniture, tools, bicycle, paperwork and bits n' pieces, and stored them in my brother's barn. He didn't mind but probably thought I'd remove them in a year or so, once I got bored.

My brother and sister offered to put me up when I came back every six months, but again they didn't know how long I'd be doing it for.  _I_ had no idea how long I'd be doing it for, and I still don't!

Two years and counting, it can't now NOT be an inconvenience.
I've thought about the alternatives - selling my things, living/storing in a caravan, couchsurfing, living in a cave, commercial storage and so on.  There is certainly stuff I could get rid of but not a huge amount - the it-might-come-in-handy-one-day stuff. The rest is either sentimental or useful or essential - it has to live somewhere. Accommodation-wise, Couchsurfing is perhaps a realistic possibility. B&B maybe, or hostels.

I'm uncomfortable with these feelings but the reality of all this is that what I'm doing is only possible because of the generosity of others, and that it's my choice to do what I do.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Photographic Evidence That I'm Here

I thought that perhaps you'd like to see some proof that I'm actually here, teaching! I always forget to take photos of myself but these two pics were snapped for an AdoptSriLanka progress report so I grabbed them while I remembered.

The classes are beginning to bear fruit - teachers are growing in confidence and ability, and are beginning to explore for themselves.  Since I don't have a set plan of work I sometimes find I miss aspects out - an example today was downloading and saving email attachments other than images.  This is where it's useful to have my little curriculum to remind me what's needed.  And now I've started pointing the teachers to it so that they can remind me themselves and become more involved in their learning.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Dentistry Finishes, Starts Again

You might remember I spent many weekends of the last few months traipsing backwards and forwards to the dentist in Galle to have a crown fitted on a back molar. Each visit takes the best part of a day - there's not only the travelling but also the recovering. The return journey is the worst part with the bus being packed, having to stand, squashed, thrown about, and no prospect of seeing out of a window, music blaring, heat... you get the picture. On my last trip I was actually sick but just managed to get off the bus before throwing up. So, now that the dental work is complete, you can imagine my relief at having uninterrupted two-day weekends, doing what I want to do.

Not So Fast! Yesterday a front crown fell out! The post just snapped while I was munching on a grapefruit. You know that denial feeling - "No, it's not, I'm mistaken, it can't be, it's just a pip, I'm imagining it, please, no" ...... then the realisation "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!"

So today it all starts again, and I'm feeling down.

I visit the UK in less than three weeks so I'd like this over before I go. Chances are not great.  I could try local dentists but no one recommends them. I could wait till I'm back in the UK but I don't want that precious time dominated by dental work. Plus the expense - I don't have insurance. I don't have a lot of choices.

Oh well, better get on with it.


Post Script :
The appointment with the dentist went OK, as much as these things can go OK. Looks like I need a 'bridge' because the pin on the broken tooth can't be extracted.  It's going to be a long process and will have to wait till I return from the UK. I had to fit in between appointments, have an X-ray in another department and see an Orthodontist in another surgery, 5km away, for advice. It all took time so when I finally caught the bus home it was already starting to get dark.  I found a small a/c bus from Galle to Matara with a seat so the 44 km journey went well. Then I needed to catch a slow bus to Tangalle. Maybe because it was the last slow bus of the day, it was packed. There was only standing room and I could see nothing.  As we jostled along I started to feel bad so I made my way to the back and spent the last 10km on the steps, hanging onto the door and vomiting out of the doorway. Not nice! When we eventually arrived in Tangalle I had to lean on the railings to recover, probably looking like a drunk. Urgh. My stomach muscles are still aching as I write this, 16 hours later.
This is horrible. I'm going to have to find some travel pills which don't give me a vicious headache like the last ones, else I don't know what I'm going to do. I won't survive these journeys otherwise. Next appointment for a temporary tooth is Tuesday...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Right Way To Go?

I'm hoping that my readers will give me guidance here. I don't know if I'm wasting my time and I'd like reassurance before I go on in the same direction. I'm going to invite my online PLN (Personal Learning Network) to come and be critical of my work...

(Please read then click links at bottom)

I've started building a Wiki with a curriculum of essential technology skills for teachers in developing countries.  These are pretty basic things that we, in the 'developed world', have learnt in classes or through osmosis during the last thirty years. Bear in mind that these teachers will have had very little previous exposure to technology, and English is a second language at best. I want to build a resource which self-motivated teachers can follow themselves, or follow with a little assistance.

The next step for me is likely to involve making a number of screencasts as well as continuing to build the rest of the Wiki. It's going to need quite a lot of effort so this is a good point to stop and review.

The "Provisional Driving Licence Curriculum" lists target skills and knowledge/understandings for email, web, photo-editing and so on - basic, essential stuff.  I'm currently undertaking this work for Adopt Sri Lanka, to enhance cultural exchanges between schools in Sri Lanka and English-speaking parts of the world. However, the units of the curriculum could have much wider application - not just by me but hopefully by other folk around the world if it's of sufficient quality and scope.

Please take a look and let me have your suggestions or comments below.  And finally, dear PLN, please tell me if you think I should open the Wiki up and invite folk to contribute tips, resources, tutorials, assessments. Do you think anyone would be willing to help, with no guarantees or rewards, and if they would, what are the problems you foresee?

Provisional Driving Licence - start at Essential Web

and if you've read this far you might like these Technology Resources!

Thank you,
Clive (@CliveSir)

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Breathe. Count to Ten.

This job can be damned frustrating. At times I feel I'm just not getting through. You know, like when you tell a teacher to close the browser window, pointing at the red "X", and they go and click on a bookmark.  WHY DID YOU DO THAT?? I scream inwardly, trying to hide it, though surely my incredulity must be obvious in my tone of voice.  I try to laugh it off but, after it's happened for the umpteenth time, I get near to pulling my hair out.

I have to remember that technology is so alien to some of these teachers. Some don't have a land-line phone, let alone a cell-phone. Some are in their fifties and sixties and approaching the end of their teaching careers.  Some have next to no English and struggle to understand.  They are actually quite brave coming to me - they are well outside their comfort zones, and they're still trying to learn. Credit where credit's due. I must remember this, when I'm so tempted to shout at them.  I need to try to find ways to communicate the concepts in familiar terms, and I need to take a step backwards to allow time and space for them to make mistakes and to make sense of it all. I must breathe a little! 

Then sometimes there are minor breakthroughs. Like today, when I described Google as a librarian in a vast library of books, and asked the teacher to picture herself asking the librarian to bring her books - what would she ask for? And when the librarian fetched the books she could only see the covers and needed to open them to read the details. Not the best of analogies but she suddenly "got it" and was asking about the English climate (iffy), the whereabouts of Princess Diana's burial (Althorp), how many rooms in Windsor Castle (over 1000!), flowers of Australia (so many!), house sizes in America and more. She still moves the mouse while double-clicking but she's getting there.

Monday, 30 August 2010

One Of The Things That Makes It All Worthwhile

During the school holidays some of the teachers have been bringing their children to the computer classes so that they're not left alone at home. They bring books and stuff to keep busy and not get in the way. That's fine and very considerate, but if I have a computer free I'm more than happy for them to jump on and have a go with MSPaint or watch a Mr Bean cartoon on YouTube. For most, this is their first experience with a computer and I want it to be FUN! After coming three times, one little lad wrote me this letter.


Sunday, 29 August 2010

10 Reasons Why I Blog

I am thrilled that Edna Sackson, a self-confessed "teacher and learner with a passion for technology" at an IB Primary Years Programme school in Melbourne, has asked me to head out her "learning in different contexts" series of guest posts. Edna is a highly repected A-List blogger and a prolific Twitter Tweep, offering sage advice and thought-provoking reflection. My words below are crossposted on What Ed Said

I started blogging in 2008 when I left my 21-year-life as a "senior electronics design engineer" at EFDA-JET in the UK to become a volunteer teacher at SISP, a small social project for the poor in India.  I wrote CliveInIndia for eighteen months and then continued with CliveInSriLanka when I moved to help improve basic computer literacy amongst teachers in the south of the island. I thought blogging would be a good way to keep in contact with family and friends, to let them know I was still alive, to share little adventures, things that amused me, cultural differences, and perhaps to keep contact with people I could discuss ideas with, or ask help from.  Another reason was that I’d been warned about volunteer-loneliness so, I thought, blogging might be a possible way of countering the isolation.

I was pretty diffident about my writing skills and didn’t want to offend anyone or look a complete wazzock by rabbitting on about stuff I clearly knew nothing about so I kept my first blog for subscribers only - a few friends and family - and sent a sanitised version to my old workplace.

It was great at first. People liked what I wrote and said kind words. But, as time passed, interest dwindled. By and large my readers didn’t use an RSS aggregator like Google Reader and so would only look when they remembered. Lives moved on. A few faithful folk continued with me but I began doubting my blogging abilities and purpose.

I decided I should be happy just writing the blog for myself. It was OK - I could keep it as a personal journal of things to look back on when I’m in my dotage or with grandchildren or just to flick through occasionally.  And besides, I quite enjoyed the activity of writing about my thoughts, little tales and occasional rants. Pushing thoughts out to the world somehow made them a little more real and helped to reflect and clarify them. As for countering loneliness, I'm sure it helped.

However, one thing which had bothered me right from the start was the nagging, perhaps conceited, notion that there might be unknown people who’d be interested in what I had to say or might find my anecdotes of life in India useful. Writing for myself was all very well but how much better would it be if others benefited too? I decided the only way to know for sure was to remove sensitive things and then make the blog public for all to read.  It didn’t help that Google failed to index my India pearls of wisdom but at least I’d grown enough in confidence to let it.

When I came to Sri Lanka I was working with a whole new demographic - teachers and not children.  In India the school hadn’t been able to get a decent Internet connection so I just taught with client-based applications.  Here my office was wired and my role was to help local teachers communicate electronically with their overseas counterparts to support the organisation’s programme of cultural exchange. It opened up a world of possibilities. The first thing I did in Sri Lanka was to introduce collaboration through Google docs.  Not only did it win me friends in the organisation but it also helped me organise my own time more effectively by allowing my colleagues to book teachers into a Google spreadsheet timetable.

The pressure was on to efficiently produce a curriculum and learning materials. I felt I needed to tap into the online community so I subscribed to blogs and got going with Twitter. (I haven't exploited this fully yet - I still wonder if there might be people willing to help me develop a general learning resource for teachers or volunteers in developing countries.)  I was very fortunate to quickly find people who went out of their way to help me grow my Personal Learning Network. This had an unexpectedly positive impact on my blog hits. Unexpected because I didn't think my posts as an amateur would be of much interest to any qualified teachers, and because I was trying to introduce local teachers to Web 1.0 when Western teachers were talking Web 2.0 minimum. But feedback from a few teachers and children has informed me that some of my photos have helped kids in their studies, and some of my tales have been of interest to new readers.  This is great encouragement!

So there you have it.  Ten reasons why I blog:
  1. To keep a journal for myself
  2. To keep in contact with family and friends
  3. To inform and share
  4. To counter isolation
  5. To crystalise thoughts
  6. For the pleasure
  7. To reflect
  8. As an aide-mémoire for my fallible and failing memory (did I mention this above?)
  9. To let off steam
  10. To develop and benefit from my PLN

    Tuesday, 24 August 2010

    Planning for Another Six Months Here

    A month ago I was talking about future possibilities here. This is what I've decided:
    • I'll return here for a further six months after my visa-renewal trip back to the UK in October.
    • I'll find myself a local school to work in for a few hours a week in addition to the teacher-training work I do.
    This will give me time to achieve more of what I've started, more time to find my next post, and satisfy my feeling that working with kids is more personally rewarding than working with teachers.

    There's a little Muslim school up the road and a couple of their teachers come to me for training. I know I can work with them and the school supports a very poor community. The school across the street is another possibility - the organisation that will be placing computers there has given me the thumbs-up so it's just a case of contacting the principal.

    Monday, 23 August 2010

    Out Of Luck In Hill Country

    Rain meant that my trip to the hill country was a bit shorter than I expected.  Still, it was a welcome break - the first I've really had since coming here four months ago.  The nine hours of bus journey went pretty well, all things considered. I spotted a couple of landmarks that my dad mentioned he knew when he was in Colombo as a ten year old, eighty years ago. He'll be chuffed when I tell him! The transfer of bus in Colombo was reasonably painless and quick, and I doubt we could have got to Kandy much quicker even if the bus had been non-stop, due to the traffic.  In the last 20km or so the scenery opened up and started to look attractive and lush as we got away from Colombo.

    Kandy is a bustling city nestling in the shadow of some large hills.  I wanted to see its layout so next morning I climbed the steep little hill to the huge, white Buddha which overlooks the town. It would have been a perfect viewing point had I been willing to stump up the Rs.200 entry fee. OK, OK, so that's only £1.30-ish, but it's the principle - I didn't want to see the Buddha, I just wanted to see the countryside from his vantage point, the place he was monopolising!  Natural viewing points such as this should be public property in my opinion, and free for all, including foreigners! Besides, funds are a bit limited for this volunteer (you could say I have different spending priorities, or perhaps, more accurately, I'm just plain mean!) and I was still reeling from the Rs.3000 a night accommodation costs and the Rs.5,500 ticket for Kandy's Esala Perahera. Anyway, the views I got from not-quite-at-the-top were better than nothing: I could see the lay of the land, Kandy Lake and the surrounding hills, and took a couple of photos.

    Kandy Lake is nice-enough in itself, but there's busy traffic round three-quarters of it so the peace and air quality is spoiled, in my opinion.  I walked round part of it and avoided the worst bit by turning back.  There was a rather magnificent lizard lazing in the sun at the side of the lake which I missed the first time so I was well-rewarded!  After lunch I went inside the compound of the Temple of the Tooth but didn't get a ticket to go inside the buildings. There were a few of the fifty elephants for the perahera tethered about the place but thoughtlessly, none had shade.  One smart creature had thrown a leafy branch on its back to keep the sun off and got angry when I came a bit too close, with much ear-flapping and straining at its chains. I didn't hang around long!

    After much debating with myself I decided that the Rs.5,500 was just too much to pay to see the perahera. I mean, that's about US$50, Euro39, or £32!  And that just to have a covered seat to see what the locals see for free from the pavements.  So... that evening I got to the pavement in plenty of time, grabbed an unoccupied space, and all seemed to be going well. What I hadn't counted on was the selfishness of Sri Lankans and the umbrella-rage when it started to rain. There was elbowing and jostling and arguing, and positioning of umbrellas so that neighbours got wet... In the end I just stood at the back, but because I'd been told it'd start at 7pm, then 7:30, then 8pm, then 8:30, and it STILL hadn't started, and I was feeling miserable after four hours of waiting and fed up with the behaviour, I just decided to call it a day and slunk off without seeing anything.

    Next day I took a train trip to Ella.  I'd hoped I could get in the observation carriage at the back of the train but no such luck - they didn't take bookings from that particular station :(  Nor did I manage to find a seat in the carriage I eventually squeezed onto - they'd all been occupied since the train left Colombo. It was a case of either standing or taking turns to perch on the edge of someone's seat when space allowed.  Hardly better than being on a bus - it was very crowded, but at least there wasn't all the swaying and aggressive acceleration and braking.  Some pretty worrying noises and lurches though!  Never mind, I did get to meet a couple of nice nurses, extended families and fellow travellers, even if I didn't get to see much out of the windows.

    The ride was seven or eight hours and by the time we got to Ella it was raining. I grabbed a tuk tuk and stayed at Hill Top Guest House which had been recommended by a friend (thank you, Nora!)  Next morning it'd stopped and I discovered that the location was perfect for views of "Ella Gap" from the roof - see the movie below.  However, more rain was forecast and, because I'd been told that the local tracks were very dodgy in the wet, I decided I may as well go back home to Tangalle.  I did get a bit of a gentle hike in though - down the snaking road which descends the hills, and there were some excellent views. About six or seven kilometres out of Ella there's the Rawana Water Falls and I stopped there for a few photos, only to be accosted by touts selling worthless lumps of stone or pestering for foreign coins or offering to sell coins. Tedious!    

    And then, as predicted, it started to rain!  Fortunately, after only ten minutes, an express bus came flying down the hill from Ella and I managed to flag it down. I spent the next four hours hanging onto a pole near the front, badly bruising my shoulder in the process, trying not to have my feet stamped on, putting up with smelly bodies pressed against me and trying to make sure no one else insinuated their way into this prized spot!  I succeeded but was mighty relieved when we finally pulled into Tangalle. Home!

    Tuesday, 17 August 2010

    Tangalle Schools' Perahera

    I'm taking a week off. Tomorrow, immediately after a Skype chat with students at an Australian school (via @whatedsaid web), I'll be heading north to the hill country. First stop will be Kandy where I'll be meeting up with Rani, a teacher whose husband died of cancer and whose two daughters were killed in the civil war here. She has two sons, one in London and the other in the US. She supports the schooling of fifty poor children in the predominantly Tamil NE of Sri Lanka from her meagre income and savings. I heard yesterday that she's sold her own home and is living in one room in order to afford to do this.

    My visit will coincide with the middle of the famous Esala Perahera, or Festival of the Tooth, the tooth being the sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha.

    After Kandy I'll continue south on the scenic railway towards Ella where there should be some good trekking, mountains to explore, vistas to view, and cool, fresh air to breathe.

    I'll be catching the #32 bus from Tangalle to Colombo and then the #1 to Kandy. It'll take about seven and a half hours and I'm dreading it! There is a train which would probably be more civilised but it's slower and I have a late start so it's the bus for me.

    Here are some photos taken back on June 22nd from my office window. It's a perahera (festival)  involving many of the local schools. Those children not performing stood in the sun for a good hour, intrigued by the slowly passing spectacle, and still had smiles at the end. Impressively well-behaved too!

    Do you reckon that kids in your country would be allowed on the public highway with trees sprouting from their bicycle handlebars? Probably not, and I'm not sure about the educational value, but it looked great fun!

    Sunday, 15 August 2010

    Sanath and Chandima's Homecoming

    A wedding in Sri Lanka is a multi-day event. There's the formal registration day, the wedding day, the honeymoon (one or two days) and then the Homecoming.  I was lucky enough to be invited to the Homecoming of Sanath, one of ASL's four Field Officers, yesterday in Galle.

    Convention had it that Sanath and his new wife, Chandima, had to be formally welcomed home.  As they were about to cross the threshold to his father's house, four little girls, all dressed in white, began singing a traditional song.  Just as they finished, deafening firecrackers were set off immediately behind me. I clamped my hands over my ears as best as I could but they're still ringing 24 hours later!  The explosions were also the signal for the music to begin - at high volume - and this continued through the remaining several hours of the proceedings.  I'm afraid that my Western ears found it all too much - it was impossible for me to have a sensible conversation, though the Sri Lankans themselves didn't seem too perturbed, and they were the ones that mattered.

    There was loads of food served as two "breakfasts" and then a substantial lunch with dessert. Strong alcohol was available on every table, including whiskey and arrack (made from fermented fruit, grain and sugarcane), beer and soft drinks. 

    Here are a few photos of the happy couple, one or two guests, and the staff from ASL. Many of the Sri Lankan women were stunningly beautiful - so much so that I, in my scruffy cargo trousers and sandals, felt I couldn't approach them for their photographs. Next time, maybe!

    Sunday, 8 August 2010

    There's a Rat in Mi Kitchen (UB40 song)

    This morning I went to make a cuppa, leaving my room door open. When I got back I spotted a big grey rat! Yuck! I grabbed a broom, chased it into the bathroom and locked the door.  I then found Daisy, one of the landlady's dogs, hoping that she'd dispatch it quickly, but she just wasn't interested so I chased it around a bit more and out the front door.  The beastie had generously left behind a few droppings which I swept out the front door too.

    A little later I was sitting on my bed under the fan.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see a plastic bag moving about in the breeze. Only it seemed to be moving a bit too much and when I looked again I saw the cause  - a snake!!!!  I grabbed the broom again, got it into the bathroom, quickly took this blurry picture, and locked the door.  The tiles are 20cm, so I reckon this fella's about 130-140cm.  Not as big as the one which visited our offices recently but a bit more mobile. We called a lad from down the road to identify and deal with it.  Unfortunately, when we opened the door again, it was just disappearing into a gap in the roof which it must have reached by climbing onto the basin and then springing 100cm to the roof.  Luckily we found it again in the laundry room and managed to frighten it off.

    Turns out it was another rat snake and I'm wondering if it was tracking the rat through sense of smell, perhaps from the droppings.  Whatever, I'm keeping my door firmly shut from now on.  I have to admit that at the moment I'm quite wary of things which could be lurking in corners!


    Saturday, 7 August 2010

    It's going OK!

    I think it's time for an update on my computer training classes. They've been going for almost four weeks now so surely there's something to say!

    After a slightly rocky start we're averaging 6 teachers a day, each coming for the nominally 90 minute sessions after school. That's after 13:30 here which, perhaps, sounds early until you realise they start work before 07:30. My classes start at 14:00 and finish 17:00-17:45 with the teachers getting a single session per week.

    Group sizes vary between 1 and 5 - the bigger classes are tricky because they're all mixed ability and we have only 3 computers (or 4, counting my laptop). Problems with teacher-availability and a preference to come with certain companions has made it next to impossible to ability-group. And, of course, sharing computers isn't successful unless the teachers are well-matched in ability and temperament. I think I'm going to have to reschedule in September (the new school year - hols started yesterday) to somehow even out the peaks and troughs.

    Standards range from never having touched a computer before to highly competent. For the raw beginners I use the BBC's Computer Tutor interactive program as it teaches basic mouse and keyboard skills and includes some entertaining activities once it gets going. The language is also reasonably simple and clear, though the double-click speed is a bit fast and is hard-coded. A couple of older teachers are finding the mouse difficult to master (eg moving it when double-clicking). I tried the (therapeutic) busting of bubble-wrap and I've bought different mice but neither helped. So I've been encouraging them to be creative with MS Paint (a seriously under-rated program in my opinion - perhaps one day I'll show you what my Indian children could produce with it!) to develop familiarity and precision.

    About half of the teachers have had some computer training before - usually on Microsoft Office products, but haven't used the web so that's where I start. Any IT teachers have been helped with stuff which isn't in their class workbooks (like understanding https, using bookmarks and the bookmark toolbar, dragging tabs and so on).

    I explain what the Internet is, how the web differs, introduce the teachers to IE, Firefox and Chrome browsers, and Yahoo, Bing and Google search engines, explain what they're for and how it all fits together. I give them nothing in writing and don't expect note-taking - I firmly believe that they learn best by getting hands-on and playing as soon as possible. I get them to use and compare different search engines, change home pages, bookmark stuff and put buttons on the bookmark toolbar. I mix in some fun searches like checking their own names, what their names mean, Sri Lankan recipes, hobbies, sports and so on. I have a pre-prepared set of twenty-five queries which are perhaps a little UK-centric but they're mostly light-hearted and they can pick and choose. I try to give them the tools, confidence and enthusiasm to find information themselves so that they can research interests or find answers to any questions they may have.

    For the more advanced I talk about secure websites which is an ideal lead-in for setting up Gmail accounts. I also talk about online banking and shopping though they're never likely to do either since bank/credit cards are unusual here. I've touched on security/safety issues but need to go deeper. Lessons covering email, word processing, photo editing, computer security, burning CDs and more are all in the pipeline. I've occasionally thrown in a bit of Skyping each other to illustrate non-web Internet traffic and that always goes down well!

    It's gratifying when teachers are keen to stay longer than their allotted times. Actually, most of them need encouragement to leave at the end of the day!

    So far so good, and those teachers who've attended are keen to return. They tell me they're enjoying the course and it's obvious they're learning from it.

    Time-keeping is proving a thorny issue but I just have to be flexible. Some turn up early if they happen to be in town, others turn up late if they have meetings or miss buses. If they've made an effort to attend at all then I make an effort to fit them in.

    I ask ASL's field officers to remind the teachers the day before their lessons. It's not always easy getting in touch - some schools don't have phones and it can be a case of phoning at home or a neighbour, or having messages passed between teachers. Those that tell me they're coming but then don't turn up three times in a row irritate me but occasionally there are good reasons. It always surprises me that some women teachers have to ask their husband's approval to come or to change times. Approval might be refused if she's needed to look after an ill mother-in-law or another of the husband's relatives.

    Naturally the unexpected crops up and they have to cancel - I do wish they'd tell me but often they don't! It would just avoid me having to do unnecessary preparation work. But it's not a big deal; I just like complaining!

    To manage the timetable I use a Google spreadsheet with one sheet per month, one sheet for the holiday timetable (yes, they're keen to come in the hols!!) and another sheet with all the teachers listed alphabetically. All teachers' names link to Google docs where I record individual progress and have photos to remind me who's who. Those pages link to another document which profiles the school and contains the teachers' contact details. All documents can be seen by everyone in the ASL organisation but I restrict editing of the timetable to myself and the managers. If I screw up then I have only myself to blame!

    If you've managed to read to this point, thank you for persevering! A lot of words for saying it's all going OK!

    Sunday, 1 August 2010

    Mini Perahera

    A Perahera is a parade with dancers, whip crackers, elephants, amazing costumes, noise, smoke and more.  There's a huge one in Kandy in August - I have half a mind to go.  I'd like to see the spectacle but the prospect of so many people, so much noise, so many touts, exorbitant prices ... well, it's a bit daunting for someone who likes calm and quiet!

    On my way home yesterday I encountered a mini-sized perahera.  I was on the bus approaching Tangalle when it suddenly took a detour down a side road.  Fearing that it was going the back way to Beliatta before coming back to Tangalle, I lunged out of my seat, pushed past a few bodies and jumped out of the door.  Yep, the bus was still moving, but only slowly! I found myself in a predominantly Muslim area, in amongst a lot of smiley children.  They told me that a little perahera was due and, sure enough, down the road it came a few minutes later. It was getting dark and, given the limitations of my little camera and its user, these aren't the best of photos but perhaps they'll give you an impression of the event.

    Sunday, 25 July 2010

    Exploring Future Possibilities Here

    OK, well, I'll get straight to the point of this blog post. Which is that I'm seriously thinking of staying here in Sri Lanka another 6 months. Friday, certainly the day before, I would have said No Way José, absolutely not, but I've changed my mind. I need to sleep on it a little bit more but there's a good chance I'll go for it.

    So, why this sea change? I'm not 100% sure! If I lay out my thoughts then maybe I'll begin to know what I'm thinking:
    • Sri Lanka - it's a beautiful place, of course, but I am here to do a job. Like India, the place is not so important to me.  Having said that, I do want to see more of the island and I'm aware that time is ticking away.
    • Everything is available here though it can sometimes take a while to find. Services are a lot better and population density is a lot lower.
    • It's a whole lot quieter, less polluted, and cleaner than India.
    • The people on the whole are friendly, smile hugely, are curious, have a go at communicating with me, especially prefer the British, but Sri Lankans are not to be trusted, apparently. Those last are not my words - I've been told them often enough, even by Sri Lankans themselves. Maybe it's a hang-over from the civil war.
    • Some locals seem suspicious of what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I ignore that and do what I do.   
    • There are touts (= solicitors) who sidle up to you and casually ask how you are, where you're from, where you're going, what you're doing, all the time with an eye on your wallet. And there are others who are simply being friendly. You just have to be aware.  It's not a big problem.
    •  I pay for the colour of my skin, but it's not excessive.  
    • ASL, the organisation I work for, appreciates me.
    • Sri-Lanka doesn't FEEL like there's no money about. I wonder if the poorly-equipped schools is more a case of mismanagement rather than lack of money. Do I want to help people who won't help themselves?  Or maybe they can't?
    • There's no abject poverty that I've seen. I'm a bit uncomfortable about this - I would rather be working with the poor and trying to improve their lot.
    • I have done three months and have two and a half months to go. I haven't achieved a lot so far. I've only just started teaching the teachers for example. Sure, I've got this thing rolling, but I'd be happier if I saw results. Having said that, I know that I'll never achieve as much as I'd like to.
    • I'm not teaching children. I really miss that. I'm teaching teachers and am hoping they'll pass what they've learnt on to the kids, but I miss being with all those blank canvases, open hearts, trusting, eager, lively little souls. Or the older ones who are starting to make progress and just need a bit of direction. Am I looking at this with rose-tinted spectacles? Probably! They're not all angels, I admit, and some are a real challenge, it is quite hard work, but give them the right environment, encouragement, opportunities, and not stressing when they don't jump through the artificial hoops a teacher can create, the progress that they achieve, it all adds up to making teaching kids a real pleasure. And when they learn from you and then start teaching you things - that's so unimaginably rewarding! Then there's the hugs... But as I say, right now I'm not teaching children.
    • I really miss those SISP children I taught in India. I look at all their photos and get nostalgic. I keep wondering if I might surprise them (and myself!) by going back there.
    • Sri Lanka is more expensive than India. Although I upped it, I'm struggling to keep within my budget. The unexpected dental work (another appointment next week, folks!) didn't help. I can easily afford to continue right now - it's just that it affects the future. I'll have to monitor it, and perhaps not buy Kellogs Cornflakes!
    • The team I work with here are good. I don't need to elaborate - there are no problems on that front.
    • I feel I'd like to work in Cambodia. The people are reportedly very friendly but teachers, librarians, academicians and others are in short supply because old Pol Pot knocked them off. It's a poor place in many senses, and rich in others. I might be able to do my little bit to help but haven't found anywhere from my Internet searches just yet and time is pressing. 
    • I think I'd be better off in Sri Lanka than in Cambodia if I ever needed medical attention, and there's reason to think that I might.
    • When I eventually quit Sri Lanka for the UK at the start of October when my visa runs out I would need to get somewhere abroad by the end of October. Living in the UK is not cheap.
    • Getting a further visa extension for Sri Lanka would be unlikely and very expensive, I'm told.
    • I try to be organised but it's difficult.  Teachers keep changing their appointments, turn up early or late or not at all. Some teachers appear out of the blue. I get names confused. I mix up schools.  I can't hear or pronounce either. I forget who's achieved what. These guys don't always have control over their punctuality - it's not always their fault if they're early or late. I know I can't please everyone but I also know I could do better.
    • The classes with their very mixed ability are difficult to manage, but I can't regroup as some teachers can only come on certain days at certain times with certain others. But maybe I could re-group a little.
    • The school hols are coming up which shortens teaching time and I'd like to take a couple of weeks off. But it might be a possibility to work with keyboard and mouse-challenged teachers during the time I'm here.
    Here are some other factors:
    Opposite my office there's a large modern primary school. During school hours I can see the kids' heads just above the window sills.  In the mornings I see them coming into school, and at 13:30 I see them waiting and leaving in their buses, tuk-yuks, vans, or on the crossbar of their dads' bicycles. They have no computers or IT teachers at the school and they're not in ASL's twinning scheme.

    Last week I was discussing visas with the senior managers at ASL. I had understood that getting a further extension would be unlikely and expensive. I hadn't realised that if I go back to the UK then the clock is effectively reset. And going back to the UK to see family and friends for three weeks every six months is in my master plan.

    Despite the chaos, all teachers (apart from two) have thanked me for helping them - they have learnt things in my classes they tell me.  That's rewarding!  And those two have their own agenda, literally. They expect me to fix, or to answer, their list of immediate problems. Unlike all other teachers, they've been given release from school to come to my sessions in the mornings.  All other teachers are coming in the afternoons in their own time but these two say they are too busy then.  They've been given permission to come only four times and I've already spent one of those times doing something not on their list - showing them web browser and search engine options, how to change the home page, how to bookmark and put bookmarks on the toolbar. How to search effectively.  I worked really hard on them, to the detriment of the other teachers there. But they just wanted to be spoon fed with answers or facts.  They don't realise that I'm trying to equip them with tools to help themselves.  One of them - the IT teacher - just spent the whole 90 minutes yawning and I don't think she was tired. It's disheartening but I haven't given up.  I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing but get them to search for the answers they need on the Internet.  Maybe it'll work but I've heard these two are quite lazy.  We'll see.

    During the week our office was visited by a Canadian organisation.  They have a small twinning scheme and they also supplied a load of computers to a guy for free use by schools.  This guy turned it into a commercial enterprise and kept all the proceeds.  I heard on Friday that the Canadians are pulling the computers out and donating them to the primary school across the road.  Thud! The penny drops - that could be a very convenient opportunity for me!

    My very last group of four teachers on Friday was an above-average group. There was an IT teacher who had never used the Internet before but was keen enough and she came with a really first class English teacher who had used email before but not much else and was very enthusiastic - she had turned up the previous week and was attentive and quick, and pleased with what she'd achieved. I set her to teach the IT teacher everything she knew.

    The other pair were a very able English teacher and another IT teacher. The latter even taught HTML and wanted to design a school website!  I can do that but it's not in my remit and when I asked her if she needed support in any other area she said she didn't.  So I basically set them to answering some standard Internet queries I had knocked together as a kind of quiz. I thought I probably couldn't help her and she was visibly unhappy about that.  Just to check, I threw a few theory questions at her and she knew all the answers. So I thought I'd attempt to show her the options for building a website.  She'd used a crusty old version of Frontpage before but had never heard of Dreamweaver. She didn't know about Weebly, Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal.  She didn't know what a blog was or a wiki, CMS, FTP, Facebook or Twitter, Google Docs or even Google Images.  She'd hardly used the Internet at all, didn't know her email password and yet she taught HTML!  I set that pair to research blogs, wikis and Weebly on the web. One was helping with the language, the other with understanding of the technology and how it might be applied. When I stopped by a bit later her whole demeanour had changed!  She was excited to search and discover these new technologies for herself. She could see new possibilities opening up and how she could find out more. They were empowered and delighted!

    Unfortunately, I felt I'd rather neglected the other pair, although when I checked they seemed happy with what they'd been doing. Getting one to teach the other had actually shown a few holes in their knowledge which I'll address next week. 

    I thought about all this later, on Friday night and Saturday morning.  I need to confirm but ASL seem keen to have me for as long as I want to stay.  I can see a way of organising myself a bit better to manage the timetable. I think that getting a visa should be easier than I expected and maybe I'll be able to get the correct employment category this time, with ASL's help.  They may even be willing to pay for it!  I can see how I could work with children again by getting involved in the school across the road, and it shouldn't impact much on the teacher-training. By staying longer I'll buy time to find my next project, in Cambodia or wherever. By staying longer I'll be able to achieve something more significant and meaningful. Finally, I can see how I can help even the most-able of  the IT teachers. And their enthusiasm is infectious!