Friday, August 14, 2015

Founders' Day

I probably should have taken more pictures. Today was a good day. The kind of good that happens when the expectations have been met: we were excited, we sang the hymns, we oohed and aahed at the wrong and right moments, we walked around the school and hostel marvelling at the new improvements which are evidence of the school's progress. The assembly unfolded as it should and I knew every hymn except the second verse of "Dank God, dank hom alom"-- no surprises!

Here's the evidence:

The crazy class photo at the Old Girls Guild dinner.

last night's dinner
Selfie-gone-bad with Ms Felton--best teacher in the world and Kath Furman, the day's guest speaker

Class of 2005 vs the 2nd team. We lost 4-2

The legendary team: thanks for taking one for the team
I shan't go into the politics of the day. My nostalgia will not allow me to use that lens today. Here's to the next 10 years.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The ten year reunion

About a year ago I was in East London packing up my mother’s house and rethinking the idea of home. My mother had just had a stroke and my sisters and I had just under two weeks to wrap up my mother’s life as she could no longer live alone because the stroke was quite severe. We decided she would move to Durban to be near my sisters. As a result of my mother leaving East London I realised East London could no longer be home. It became the place where my childhood and adolescent memories had meaning. 

My visitor status was highlighted last night when I arrived at the airport. Instead of using public transport or asking my sister to pick me up, I hired a car and drove along Settlers Way on my own for the first time in my life. The road was familiar after the many trips to and from the airport and living in Sunnyridge (a suburb close to the airport) for many years. I’m not sure what I expected to happen on the short trip to my friend’s house: perhaps the cops would emerge somewhere and tell me they’ve never seen me drive on this road and therefore I had no right to be there. Or perhaps I feel like a fraud: I’ve never had to be an adult driving myself around in East London. That’s what my sisters are for. I’ve never been in East London without having a home to go to with my mother waiting to see me. I’ve never been in East London without being my mother’s daughter.

Coming back to East London for my high school reunion highlights my visitor status even more. I doubt I would be spending a few days of my holiday in East London if it hadn’t been for the reunion. Many friends have eschewed coming to the reunion and I find I have had to explain my choice to come back; even to myself. I was invited to speak at my school’s prizegiving five years ago while I was still studying in Grahamstown. I was surprised by the invitation and it came with a mixture of honour and horror that I would be the person saying a speech at my school’s prizegiving like all the white men and women who had done while I was in high school. I realised that I neither remembered their faces nor their messages. 

Like many people: I had a bitter-sweet experience at school. I mastered the art of being the good student and staying out of trouble and mostly had a holistic experience peppered with assimilation along the way i.e. the coconut. I liked most of my teachers and left matric with a glowing testimonial with the list of achievements I had accumulated in the 12 years as a “Clarriebag”. School was mostly a safe space in comparison to home where my family was fracturing while trying to survive: my father’s unemployment, my mother’s volatile and aggressive behaviour and my sisters’ quietness. School and books kept me sane. Unlike my sister (two years ahead of me)I didn’t have many friends. I wasn’t as beautiful and popular as her and I lived the quintessential high school existence vicariously through her: the rugby games, the dances, the boys and the rebelliousness with drinking and smoking. 

A whole itinerary has been mapped out for the weekend: an old girls’ dinner tonight, Founder’s Day assembly on Friday, followed by a hockey match followed by drinks and finally brunch on Saturday morning. I’m grateful for the somewhat busy schedule because I’ll have little time to naval-gaze about my sense of loss or displacement in a place I was once so certain about. I will also have a chance to meet up with old friends and decide whether I want to see my cousins or not (usually my mother insisted I see them); people I may not get a chance to catch up with again after this weekend. It feels as though there’s a lot of meaning to the weekend and no meaning at all.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

The last day

I'm going home today. Yesterday was technically day 6. Everyone in the group did presentations sharing the ideas we would like to implement when we go back to our schools. The common theme in the presentations was that we would like to build on what exists already in our schools.

My plan is to incorporate the ideas from the seminar into our professional development programme. I don't think it's wise to try implement anything at this point without a conversation with the teachers I work with about their ideas about a global vision for the school. Given the history and status of my school I think there's a lot that's been done before whether its had a global vision or not. I'm mostly interested to hear their ideas about what kind of global vision does our school need.

At the end of a trip there's always a bitter-sweet sense of excitement and bleakness. I'm bleak because it's the end of a trip that's been filled with ideas and meeting new people. I'm excited to go home and see my life with new eyes. One of the words used for the theme of the trip was refreshment: intellectual refreshment that can influence the work we do in various ways. I do feel refreshed after two weeks in a foreign country that doesn't feel foreign. I have been able to reconnect with friends I haven't seen in years and met people whose paths I hope to cross again.

My home for the past week.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Day 5: education envy

Education envy: also known as "A comparative look at international education systems around the world". This discussion began with a reflection: what’s positive and negative about our education system? As someone who is constantly reflecting on the education system in South Africa I was stumped. There are often very few positive features in our education system and sometimes there seems to be very little hope. So instead of focusing on the South African education system I had to narrow my experience to my school experience.

The other teachers shared their evaluation and I was reminded of the solidarity with teachers from the United States of America who are as equally conflicted about their education system as I am about mine. Some of the issues that were raised were related to the question of equity and the role education plays in creating opportunities for children who need them. An example from one of the teachers from Baltimore was her school's scholarship focus in providing access to disadvantaged students who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend the expensive school. This was in the same breath that she explained that more access needs to be created as some of these students had problems with transport getting to school which makes the opportunity (of being at a privileged school) come at a huge cost.

Most teachers agreed that part of understanding the pros and cons about our schools and education systems means understanding the culture we create and recreate. The perfect example of this culture are societal expectations on education and parents' expectations on what education should be able to do for their children. As Ken Robinson says in his famous TED talk, "Everyone has a vested interest in fact everyone has an opinion about education...!" This means that schools are balancing many views about what education should be about and what success means after 15 or so years in an educational institution.

It should be no surprise that the first system we explored is Finland. Much has been written about this education system and we were all gushing at their success and being envious about the professional freedom teachers have in Finland. Teachers in Finland have the luxury of teaching their students to learn and not to pass a test as they are not burdened by standardised testing. However, the conversation shifted when we looked at the results from the OECD's Education at a Glance 2014 report. Our group leader selected a very strategic graph looking at the performance of countries in maths results. The envy for Finland faded as attention was given to Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and  Singapore which are amongst the top 10 performers. Of course this is one indicator but a compelling one as competency (or excellence rather) in Maths has been seen to correlate with future income. However, there's a sinister and far more worrying element to these results: it comes at a great cost to all those involved. Especially the students. 

The Asian (a loose term for the sake of the discussion) education system is known to be very competitive. Success is measured by which university one can apply to and be accepted into. In North Korea there are hogwans where extra learning happens when children ought to be sleeping or reading for leisure or (dare I say) watching tv. In her book The smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way Amanda Ripley describes South Korea as the pressure cooker of all education systems. This is the other extreme of academic excellence. What does it tell us about these countries?

It tells us that education is valued. Sometimes the extent to which the education is valued has unintended consequences such as suicide where young people feel like they cannot cope with the demands. The question of the government can also be questioned: should the government leave schools alone to do their work as in the Finnish example? Or should the government be encouraging academic success even when it's at the detriment of the children it should seek to serve?

There's a variety of pressure cooker systems across the world. In the very first session earlier this week all the teachers made the connection that in privileged schools there's a culture of stress and high achievement because Ivy league universities are the goal for students. Learning is no longer a joyful experience about learning (assuming there was once a golden age where such learning existed) but rather it's a means to an end. A ticket to enter into "the game": a highly competitive world where credentials and networks are everything.

There was a sense amongst teachers that the status quo is not enough and it is not a fair system. As it stands education doesn't challenge the capitalist, consumerist, classist culture bit rather it confirms it and reproduces it. Those who are wealthy often have quality education and more choices than those who are poor with very little choice. Education seems to have been co-opted into the globalisation project in many ways included perpetuating an unequal system whilst also having the potential to be the great equaliser. 

So the question remains: if we (as teachers) are not happy with our experience in our schools and our role in "the system" what do we do to change it? Can we change it? How can we inspire our learners to thrive in a fraught system that privileges and rewards certain behaviour while punishing others? There's no easy answer to this question. Schools are systems and systems have cultures that are often difficult to shift. While having this discussion we were reminded that in spite of the burdensome "system" we have a space of influence with the students we interact with daily. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Day 4: Tools for global learning

The big question for this session: how can we enhance our students’ learning experiences through the use of the latest communications technology?

We started off with a brief discussion about the tools other teachers have been using such as Skype classroom, Montage, Safari Montage, Canvas and google hangouts. There was a sense in the group that there’s a need to choose the tools carefully rather than using them because the school policy dictates that teachers need to use these tools. 

Andrew Field from the Cambridge International Examinations came to share more tools available for global learning. He also emphasised the need to have guiding principles when using technology in the classroom in order to ensure meaningful learning happens. Some of his suggestions are listed below:
  •       Todaysmeet This tool allows for a digital classroom where a virtual conversation can take place using any tool. Students simply log in and contribute to a conversation (with guidelines from the teacher presumably) and the teacher can track the transcript of the conversation. This is a possible platform for students who may not contribute to class discussion and may find it easier to share their ideas with the interface of technology.

  •      Quizalize: This programme helps create quizzes in class as a form of formative assessment. Students are also able to create quizzes to test each other. This is a programme that can make assessment fun.

  • This website allows students to create and share presentations. I’m not truly convinced by it but the presenter emphasised that it’s not just a powerpoint equivalent.

  • Socrative: This is one we have used before at my school but I didn’t realise there were more features to use. It’s also helpful for tracking assessment through open-ended questions and MCQs.

  • Kahoot: The website has a lovely image of two boys engrossed by a computer trying to work something out and when they’ve cracked the activity there’s great example. This suggests yet another programme to make assessment fun for students. However, the website shares that there’s more to the fun element as students can collaborate as social learning is enhanced. This suggests more applications are available.

  • Skype classroom: This is an interesting option I’ve never considered. The idea is to connect with other students, teachers and speakers across the world in real time in your classroom. Skype makes the world smaller.

  • Moodle: I first came across Moodle when I was still a student. It was an interesting tool but never made much sense to be (it wasn’t user-friendly) but I think many institutions have a good experience with Moodle.

  • Mahara: This sounds like a better version of Moodle as the website promises  that it’s “a fully featured web application to build your electronic portfolio. You can create journals, upload files, embed social media resources from the web and collaborate with other users in groups. “

The session was concluded with a discussion about “technology fatigue” most teachers face in the school because of IT policies that are top-down from management rather than giving teachers the autonomy to choose the programme that suits their subject. I think my school has a healthy approach when it comes to programmes as teachers choose what is relevant rather choosing the latest fad. Teachers felt that it is important for teachers to have a certain level of mastery over a programme and find one that fits with the objectives of the subject rather than use a programme for the sake of using technology.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Day 4: Unpacking school culture

Today was a short day. This session began with a series of questions leading to a discussion about school identity:

  • List five adjectives to explain:
    •  What your school thinks it is
    • What it actually is
    • What it should be 
  • To what different audiences is your school presenting itself?
  • What media does the school use to communicate with audiences?

This led to a discussion where each teacher shared similarities and differences in each of the schools represented.

I think these questions could be used within my school context through our professional development groups. It would be interesting to see if teachers would have different or similar responses to these questions.

The discussion on assessment was very brief with a focus on the purpose of assessment. The table below was used to generate discussion:

Assessment for…
Type of assessment
Reason for assessment
Timing of assessment
(I listed assessments we’ve done thus far in each column)
Some thoughts:
The purpose of assessments needs to be in the forefront of every teacher’s mind when preparing assessment. There was a consensus amongst the teachers that most of the assessment done in our schools is not necessary and often done because that is part of the school’s culture which is driven by data.

It is also important to consider other forms of assessment such as peer assessment and self-assessment. Peer assessment is crucial for work that requires the students to collaborate with others. Is it possible to consider collaborative assessment as a core part of the assessment programme? This question relates to the idea of assessment being a meaningful part of the curriculum objectives or collaborating amongst students in order to create a different kind of learning experience. Rubrics for alternative assessments are available on various websites (mostly UK-based organisations):
·      The remainder of the session was dedicated to an activity that will hopefully inform the feedback I will give to my school. We were given a planning task that we could work on in order to think of the practical application of the ideas we've discussed thus far: 
I have started with the first part of the activity. This has made me realise that in spite of the many challenges I face within my school there's a consciousness of a global perspective. This is largely because of the privileged nature of the student body and teachers. There's a global awareness but is it a critical awareness of the global world? 

   The day also included a visit to the Parker Library which houses many archives of manuscripts from the Renaissance and Medieval periods. It is named after Archbishop Matthew Parker who donated most of the manuscripts to the college.

A peculiar position for a bookshelf: above the entrance


   This visit made me consider the history within the university. The university was established in 1209. That's a strange year that means nothing to me except that it was a long time ago but in Cambridge 1209 is significant. This history is etched deeply in every church spire and turret. The legacy of a university with such a history means nothing in light of the blight of colonialism because there was life in Britain before colonialism happened and there's a sense of pride in this history. But I can't shake off the discomfort when the history is evoked because it most glorifies a white male narrative of scholarship. I'm learning a lot about myself and this place but in a place that doesn't confirm my reality and my history. 


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cambridge Day 3: What is international education?

Today the day began with a brief session exploring the skills students need in order to be competent in the future. This is not a new conversation in education circles albeit a controversial one. The most significant part of the session was looking closely at the skills in relation to the work put together by the Partnership for 21st century learning: There was consensus amongst the teachers that these skills are applicable and necessary for the teaching we are currently engaged with.

The discussion was followed by a session with Lee Davis, who is the Assistant Director for Professional Development for Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) within Cambridge University. His focus was on two areas: international education and international curriculum.

The session began with an activity: if the world were 100 people based on the findings from this website: .  The activity showed the plurality and diversity of the world we live in therefore making a case for a curriculum and education system that ought to respond to the global context in order to better prepare learners for the world they are to enter once they leave high school. The activity also pointed to the need to question our assumptions and perspective as teachers as these are often unchallenged and it seems they can only be challenged when one experiences the plurality outside their immediate community (which is often—not always—homogenous).

Is international education possible in a student that is homogenous? In order to have more meaning, is international education only possible where the student body reflects an international community? These are crucial questions which relate to the definition of an international school (discussed in the previous post). The question is also central when thinking about school culture. In trying to answer this question I guess one has to consider the context of the school. It seems that having an international student body in order for international education to be meaningful is the ideal situation but it is not a necessary condition in a school. A school can have a largely homogenous culture (class or race) but if the student’s worldview is challenged using knowledge (content) that has a global outlook then international education is taking place.

Therefore the working definitions of an international education can be as follows:
  • An international education is a worldview that is internationally minded with a focus on diversity and the plurality of the world (a typical example would be a system that uses the International Baccalaureate)
  • An international education has a curriculum and assessment model that can be implemented around the world with changes to fit a particular context. This suggests a framework with principles that guide the school’s curriculum and assessment.

The session ended with an exploration of case studies of schools and how they communicate their approach to international education.

The approach in each school suggests learning that is concerned about the students’ growth but not only in the classroom. More importantly, there doesn’t seem to be an overt focus on test scores. The programmes suggest that curiosity and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive. Looking at the case studies I began wondering about assessment: what does assessment (evaluation/measurement) look like in these contexts? Lee Davis emphasised the use of reflection on the student’s part as well as assessment that looks at the learner’s skills on a continuum (for example a rubric). A school that wasn’t a case study but raised in the discussion was Hi Tech High School which is another example of a school challenging the taken for granted perspectives about what a school curriculum should look like and what students should be able to achieve.

There are many questions about international education which I hope to explore as the week unfolds and beyond the seminar programme. A question that continues to bother is the relationship between local and global ideas in a globalising world. Whose ideas matter more when we teach? South African history or the Industrial Revolution? My own education led me to consider that South African and African voices (the subaltern perhaps) do not matter if they exist at all. What matters is the narrative of the development of previous colonial powers and the rise of the super powers, even if it is at the expense of continents such as Africa. Of course globalisation is more complicated than "us vs them" but I can't help but wonder what decisions are made when choosing a curriculum in the context of globalisation. The options are dizzying at times.

Below are pictures from the visit to Jesus College. The first three are related to iconic images associated with the college. The college has a wonderful collection of art scattered around the gardens given or loaned to the college by well-known artists from Britain and Europe. The rest of the picture are from the  biennial sculpture exhibition, Sculpture in the Close which we went to late in the afternoon.