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!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Tangalle Polla

These were some shots I took in Tangalle Polla yesterday. It's a big outdoor market which takes place every Wednesday and Sunday and it's where I buy all my fruit and veg.  The prices at Food City supermarket up the road can actually be cheaper but there's no way the produce could be as fresh or have such exotic variety.  As well as fruit and veg there are stalls for children's clothes, kitchen utensils, plastic accessories, dried fish, garden plants, and more. I'm getting to know some of the characters here and have my favourites. Some are actors, feigning disappointment or sorrow when I don't buy, and ecstatic pleasure when I do! There's much that I've never seen in the UK and I am always game for trying something new out. Latest was Rambutan, which are reddish, round and hairy - you can see some in the photo of the lady with the umbrella. There's a hard outer casing which you crack open to reveal a white inner - quite similar to a lychee (same family), with a stone in the centre. Absolutely delicious!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Several Successes

I'm pleased to report several successes this week.  Amongst them:

  1. My PLN is growing!  And already it has borne fruit with good suggestions for basic web browsing and searching coaching materials, thanks to tweeps (cringe! Twitter users) @whatedsaid and @jon_blissenbach. I've found a few more people to follow and more are following me. So right now I have 51 followers and I'm following 97.  That's a staggering increase, up from 14 and 50, ten days ago, and due in no small part by the kind promotion of @whatedsaid, who I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

  2. On Tuesday I travelled by bus and van up to Colombo to renew my visa. It's incredible to think that three months have nearly passed already and there's not a huge amount to show for it, though that's a perpetual theme for all volunteers. With a break in Galle the journey wasn't too bad.  I travelled with the Manager and the Twins Coordinator of AdoptSriLanka, Bec and Jo, and stayed overnight in a flat of one of ASL's trustees.  That helped keep costs down.  The visa renewal itself cost Rs16,000, or about £100.  That's equivalent to a month's room rent!  But the process was fairly painless - no questions asked at all - though it was the usual story of having to go from one desk to another to another for signatures, approvals, paying and passport stamping.  It was great to get it and not to have to quit my job early.

    After a spot of shopping and picking up a bargain shirt at Odel's, we were off again.  The good thing about it was that the bus started in Colombo so we had the choice of the seats.  Can't remember if I mentioned it before but I've now found the best row to sit in - just opposite the rear door, where the legroom is greatest (but where the aisle becomes the most packed - just don't sit in the aisle seat or you risk having someone's crotch in your face! Not Nice!)  The six-hour ride back to Tangalle was pretty ghastly with the usual viscous accelerating, braking, swerving, blasting of horns and so on, but I survived.  Knackered but alive. Having a window seat helped greatly with the travel sickness.

  3. Thirdly, the computer coaching I've been giving has taken off, with four teachers on Thursday and another four on Friday.  However, despite telling them the times of the sessions, they arrived at whatever suited them - it must be part of the SL mentality that they could just turn up whenever and think they'd be welcome! They started to understand when I pointed out my timetable so hopefully the situation will improve next week.

    Eight teachers out of the scheduled fifteen came.  That's got to be better than Monday's one out of eight!  I'm beginning to get a measure of the range of abilities and hopefully I'll be able to group similarly-abled teachers together.  Perhaps I'm being a bit over-optimistic, actually. It's proving quite tricky to timetable everyone to suit their individual predilections.  But we're getting there!

Monday, 12 July 2010

And Then There Was One!

On Friday, the last of the problems with the new computers was sorted out and things were looking encouraging for the start of my ICT coaching today. I had eight teachers scheduled - two in the morning and groups of four and two in the afternoon, each for 90 minutes.  I planned to do an introduction to using web browsers - nothing too taxing - just to see where everyone was skills-wise.

Over the weekend I'd downloaded a few programs and started to install them as soon as I got in the office - Chrome, Firefox, IE8, Skype, Picasa and AVG. Everything went well for two of the computers but the third, the one which had needed a new motherboard on Friday, reported 42 viruses!  A quick call to the supplier had the technician arrive within five minutes, complete with profuse apologies and the usual set of dodgy disks.  I'll give him his due - he got it all cleaned up within fifteen minutes and we were then good to go. I installed the rest of the programs without a hitch.

I really like the AVG antivirus software.  Time and again it has detected and made-safe the insidious threats of computer nasties when other software has let them through.  A great little program and free too!

Then the phone started ringing with cancellations.  First the morning pair, then two in the afternoon, then another two, and I was left with a final pair from a small, distant Muslim school. Reasons given were sick family members and having to attend another course.  Two said that the times were also inconvenient even though they'd been given every opportunity to tell me earlier. And, because the English teachers had dropped out, their diffident Singalese colleagues had followed suit.

Finally, I heard that only one of the Muslim teachers would make it, and he'd be late! I was pretty pissed off by this time but what can you do?  He was indeed late but at least he bothered to turn up, even after a downpour had given him a good drenching.  We had a solid hour and a half of instruction and practice of using web browsers and search engines. He was grateful and I was pleased that I'd had at least one receptive and keen student.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

An Unpleasant Journey

Yesterday was yet another trip to the dentist in Galle.  To remind you, if you care, it's for replacing an old filling with a crown. This must be my fifth or sixth visit - I've lost count now - and there are at least two more visits to go.  The day was hellish! I don't mind the dental work so much as the getting there.  Two and a half hours minimum in a hot, crowded bus, hurtling along bumpy, twisty roads, being thrown about and feeling sick.

I use the express bus - the number 32 - which goes from Tangalle, via Galle and on up to Colombo.  There's one every 30 minutes or so, and each slot has a different operator but the buses are more or less laid out identically.  I've finally found a row of seats near the back where I can get my legs to fit without sitting sideways and having my knees stick either into the people in the aisle or into the person next to me.  Trouble is, as it's at the back, I can't see out the front and so I get travel-sick. 

Sometimes it's not so bad.  The thing about these express buses is that they have big engines, and I presume they also have better brakes, but otherwise they're pretty-much the same as the regular buses. They also stop just as frequently, at every little stand with a passenger waiting.  The difference is that they can out-accelerate nearly everything else on the road - that is, apart from all the other express buses. But I was lucky, yesterday, to have a driver who realised that the accelerator pedal had positions other than fully on or fully off.  I got to Galle feeling not too bad, needing only five minutes to sit and recover under a tree near the sea.

The coming home was far worse.  Unfortunately the dental work had taken a lot longer than it should have. The appointment was at 2pm but I needed to get an x-ray and that took around an hour and a half - first queuing to get an invoice from the x-ray machine operator, then paying the invoice at the front desk, then queuing again for the x-ray itself. Crazy!  Unfortunately the x-ray showed that the dentist's previous work had left a void and so had to be redone, then I had to wait while she saw another patient, and finally she did some more work on me.  I'm not sure why she feels the need to question me "pain?" every time I jump when she hits a nerve but otherwise she seems to be doing everything carefully and methodically and I have faith that it'll be a good job in the end. 

Anyway, it took longer, I had to grab a bite and a drink before catching the bus home, and by then it was starting to get dark and rush hour.  On the way in I at least have the luxury of choosing a seat, since Tangalle is the start of the journey, but here, in Galle, the bus was already packed.  Barely enough standing room, hot, dark and impossible to get any visual bearings. I felt immediately sick and the feeling grew so strong that I had to hurriedly get off before I threw up over someone. When I eventually found another bus the very same thing happened. I was feeling hot, dirty, ragged and dreadful. On the final bus I grabbed a space right at the very front, standing, of course, and pressed by many bodies, but at least I could see where I was going if I twisted myself round and down. I was amazed to see how the bus managed to stay on the road even though it was grossly overloaded and the driver was viscously throwing it around. The poor old bus seemed to be straining every last sinew to stay put and protested with loud groans on every bend.

There was little for me to hold onto.  Sometimes I'd have a hand against the windscreen, other times the door or the roof. Several times I found myself clutching the CD player box, and I was very grateful it didn't come off in my hands. Other people were hanging onto me too, and I felt their full weight every time the driver hit the brakes.  So, you can imagine, I was absolutely relieved when we finally made it home to Tangalle.  It had been four and a half hours of hell.  I virtually fell from the bus when we got there and had to sit on the side for quite a while just to recover enough to walk the last mile or so to the house.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Email from @whatedsaid - PLN Building Advice

Good, friendly advice on how to build your PLN from my very first non-face-to-face follower, Edna, aka @whatedsaid :

Hi Clive,  my experience with building a PLN has gone like this: A bit more than a year ago I first started discovering and reading education blogs. In November I took the step and started blogging myself. Soon after I got into twitter, and once I discovered #edchat and other hashtags, I was on the way. At some point I joined a blogging alliance which introduced to other bloggers too. Once you start commenting on other people's blogs, they find their way to yours and it takes off from there! I can honestly say, as a teacher of over 30 years experience, I have learnt more in the past year online than ever before.

Here's what I suggest to help you become part of the fantastic network of educators out there :)
1. I have tweeted (and will again) for others to follow you to help you get started. Follow them back if you're interested and gradually if you participate in the conversation, others start to follow you too.
2. In your tweetdeck, set up columns for #edchat #edtech and any other topics of interest so that you can follow topics rather than just people.
3. Follow a list like this one Set up a tweetdeck column for it. Full of great educators.
4.Look at these and
5. Ask for help on twitter (add #edchat or #edtech or #elearning etc hashtags, so that even people who don't follow you can see your tweets) and GIVE help if you can :) Reply directly to people so that you get into a conversation.
6. Before you know it, you will dispensing this advice to others :)

That'll do for a start! Good luck! Email me anytime to continue the conversation.

Haven't yet had a chance to read about all your experiences, but very interested so far!


Thursday, 8 July 2010

PLN Growing!

Things are looking up!  My Personal Learning Network on Twitter has grown from 3 followers to 14!  Almost 500%!  Cool!  It's thanks to some publicity from @whatedsaid aka Edna (see last post) - Thank You Edna!

I thought I'd lean on it and see if it would come up with some help even in its very juvenile state.  I wanted a PC client-based photo-editor so tweeted for suggestions.  Why it's needed is because teachers in the local schools take photos with their 5 or 10MPx digicams and then can't send them over their slow dial-up connections.  Obviously cloud computing tools are out.  And few have the desktop tools needed to crop, resize and touch-up. A short while later @ccoffa from my PLN suggested Photofiltre.  Sounded perfect but I'd never heard of it.  So I searched the edu-tech blogs I subscribe to using Google Reader (all 232 of them now!) and came up with seven hits - all favourable! Great!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

More on Personal Learning Networks

Last night I followed the Twitter hashtag "#edchat" conversation.  Tweetdeck allowed me to filter the conversation so that only tweets containing that hashtag were shown, so making it easier to follow.  That's if everybody wasn't tweeting simultaneously!  Maybe it takes a while to get into (this was first time for me, after all) but there was no real flow to the discussion as far as I could tell.  Nevertheless, there were some good ideas thrown into the ring, and a huge amount of enthusiasm/passion for education generally, and the topic: "How do we as leaders promote engagement of teachers, parents and students?" specifically.  Curiously, other stakeholders (governing and funding bodies for instance) were not really included.  To me, that would be essential, to get them on side and perhaps stop them from perpetually moving the goalposts and then blaming teachers for students' underachievement. 

I don't expect to be able to contribute much to such discussions as I'm an amateur, not a professional like these guys, and I'm sidestream.  But it's more grist to my PLN (Personal Learning Network) mill.

A couple of postings back I had a comment from @whatedsaid - Edna Sackson, a teacher at an International Baccalaureate school in Melbourne.  She said to email her.  If you're reading this, Edna, please send me your address because it's not on your blog.  And Twitter doesn't allow messages to be sent to people who don't follow me - people who don't have me in their PLNs.  (I'm @CliveSir, BTW.)

This just highlights the problem as I see it - how does someone like me, a non-professional, attract professional followers who might be able to give me teaching guidance.  I'm optimistic that some of these folk using latest technology in the classroom may still be able to relate to the problems in schools with negligible technology - a couple of computers perhaps, a dial-up connection maybe, sometimes no electricity because the education department can't pay the bills, no printer, or if there is one, no money to pay for ink or paper.

Yesterday I visited a small rural school and spoke with the IT and English teachers.  They have one OK-ish computer and another ancient one, and a dial-up connection.  My aim was to get the teachers to attend the ICT coaching lessons I'll be giving very soon. They were not keen to start with since their days were packed but I won them around in the end.  I think I'm approachable, if nothing else.  They managed to persuade the Principal to give them four two-hour sessions with me.  And while at the school I fixed their camera and PC which were riddled with viruses.  The IT teacher hadn't heard of antivirus software - she just knew she had a problem transferring the photos.  She was also the school's librarian and science teacher.  I guess she'd been seconded into the role and she probably taught IT by following the book without any real understanding.  Still, there's hope: she had an email address (though she couldn't remember it) and they'll come for the coaching.  It's a start.

Monday, 5 July 2010


This was my job for Saturday. Buy two made-to-length Ethernet cables, fit more cable trunking, pull the cables in, bodge the phone installation to make the long-dead socket active again, move the phone, network router, network switch and power strip, and tidy it all up. You can see how the pillars made installing trunking awkward. Although it looks a bit of a bird's nest, I'm actually quite pleased with it, and now I can connect the network up to the three new PCs. On Friday we upgraded the office Internet connection and it does seem a lot quicker, thankfully. Always unpredictable. And we got the aircon repaired and serviced though he covered the newly-painted wall in dirt during the cleaning process, but nothing that can't be fixed with another lick of paint. Overall we're getting there, I'd say!

Sunday, 4 July 2010


This old guy lives under the bridge at Tangalle. He shares his home with hairless street dogs, mangy cats, rats, flies and kabaragoya (water monitor). His food comes from scavenging left-overs from the bins outside close-by restaurants. It's how many of the street dogs, cats and cows manage to survive. I say "old" but he's probably in his thirties or forties. Sometimes I'll pass him on the road and say hello to him but he just looks through me with a kind of expressionless incomprehension. It can't be the English word that confuses him because everyone says "hello" around here. I guess it's just life.

There's only one other derelict that I've spotted - a mumbling rake-thin beggar woman who often targets me. She utters low curses and a laugh when I pass her, and giving her some money once had the same response. I later heard that she had two sons and she watched as her older son rescued the younger one when the first wave of the Tsunami came. And she watched as the second wave took them away. I think she has an excuse for her madness.
Apparently there were a lot more more-disturbed folk in Tangalle but they were rounded up and taken to the asylum near Galle. I wondered if the guy or woman could do with some care and treatment but I'm not sure if seeking medical assistance here would be doing them any favours.