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.