Reflections on China, Part 1

This post is likely to be the first of a couple of reflections about my recent experiences in Beijing for the Learning 2.012 conference. There is so much to absorb; the organisation and location of the conference itself, the experience of spending a week in China’s amazing capital city, but mostly the genuine privilege of being able to spend time with a remarkable group of talented educators from around the globe.

The Pearl MarketFirstly, China. This is my second trip to China, the previous being for the same conference two years ago in Shanghai. I wrote some thoughts about that trip at the time and how awestruck I was by China’s rapid growth. That certainly hasn’t changed. China is still full of surprises, and especially so in Beijing where there is such a dramatic contrast between the ancient and the modern. On my first full day there I got to go shopping for pearls with Julie Lindsay and Lucy Gray (trust me, that Julie knows how to shop!) and then later that day Lucy and I explored the Forbidden City together. The size and scale of the Forbidden City was hard to comprehend, as was the fact that the buildings were three times older than modern Australia! We entered from the south gate and wandered all the way up to the north gate. We even, allegedly, met a guy who is the nephew of the last emperor. I didn’t buy his calligraphy, and I’m not sure I buy his story, but it was still a great experience. On the way home we were driven past Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, and although we were unable to stop and explore them on foot, just seeing the enormity of them was impressive enough.

Me on the Great Wall of ChinaThe next day, Adrian Camm joined Lucy and I for a trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China with our very entertaining driver Charlie. It’s easy to see why the Great Wall is one of the Wonders of the World. At over 5000 km long and over 2000 years old, the wall is breathtaking in scale and built along the craggy ridges of a rugged mountain range. The engineering required to construct this ancient wall is almost unimaginable. At Mutianyu, you can drive right up to the base of the mountain and then get whisked to the top of the Wall by a chairlift, which surprised me. Even more surprising was the fact that your return trip is by tobogganing down the winding S-curves of a steel sled track built into the mountain! I did not expect that.

The Great Wall itself was quite an experience. Words can’t adequately describe what it felt like to be standing there on top of a structure as old as the Roman Empire and having it continue along the mountain ridge as far as we could see (which admittedly with the Beijing smog was not all that far). The Wall is quite a strenuous walk and Lucy, Adrian and I wandered along it until we really couldn’t go much further,and then with lots of great photos and memories (and even a FourSquare checkin)to take back home, we backtracked to our starting point.

After a fun toboggan ride back down the mountain (please can we do it again?!) we lunched at a place in Mutianyu called The SchoolHouse where we found an open wifi access point for more FourSquare checkins, Facebook updates and even a quick Google+ Hangout with Linda.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the tombs of the Ming Dynasty, including the Sacred Way. Oh, and of course Charlie treated us to his personal rendition of Chinese opera as we drove along. As you do.

Later that evening, after being driven around all day in a French Peugeot, we sat in an Irish pub, owned by an American couple, eating Italian Pizza, before we went back to the hotel to listen to music being played by a group of Filipino musicians.

Welcome to China.

Philly to Sydney with Year 2

If you like, you can skip right to the bottom of this post and just watch the video, but I always find the story behind the story kind of interesting. So I thought you  might like to know a little bit about how and why this video was made.

It started out with a simple tweet from my buddy Kim Sivick in Philadelphia.  It started a conversation that went something like this…

Do I know anyone who might make a quick Welcome to Australia video?

I sure do.

And besides, I owe Kim a favour. When I was running blogging workshops with our staff last year I was hoping to tap into the experiences of some very blog-savvy educators by getting them to Skype in and talk to our teachers about the realities and the practicalities of using blogs in the classroom. When I asked for volunteers on Twitter (where else?) Kim Sivick  was one of those who generously responded and agreed to spend time talking with us to share her expertise.

I also got to meet Kim in person at ISTE in Philadelphia last year too, so it was nice to “close the loop” on our virtual meetups.

Kim’s idea was deceptively simple. Get our kids to make a short video about a virtual trip to Australia, and in return her classes would make a video about a virtual trip to Philly for us.

With virtually zero planning, I dropped into one of our Year 2 classrooms and asked the teacher there, Lisa, if her kids would like to make a video for these students in Philly and she jumped at the chance. In no time, Lisa and I had a bit of  a brainstorm on what sorts of things we might do, and she started working with the kids to write a script using GoogleDocs. The script gradually evolved and took shape over the next few days.

I’d been wanting to do some work with chromakeying, or greenscreening for a while, but had just never gotten around to it. It wasn’t something I’d done before, but I suggested to Lisa that if we shot the video of the kids in front of a greenscreen, then it might be fun later to try and drop in the images of various parts of Australia as backgrounds. She thought that sounded pretty cool, so I went to our IT Director and asked if I could buy an inexpensive greenscreen kit. It was one of those things we’d talked about buying for a while, but never quite got around to it. With a reason to need it now, we went online and ordered it on the spot.

When it eventually arrived we set up a date for the shoot. The classroom was transformed into a studio for the morning with lights, camera, and plenty of action. I used iPrompt Pro on my iPad to transfer the script, and then held it up just under the camera lens as a  scrolling teleprompter so the kids could read the script as naturally as possible. We shot it on a Sony HiDef camcorder at 1080i/50. It took a few takes to get things right, but the kids really worked hard to do it was well as possible. Being able to repeat a section over and over in order to get it right was a valuable part of the learning experience.  When it came time to shoot, we all had fun calling out things like “Quiet on the set!” and “Rolling!”  and “Action!”, and running things just like a real movie set. I think the kids had a lot of fun recording it.

I took the footage back to my desk and dumped it all onto my MacBook Pro to ponder out the best way to edit it.  Although I definitely do want to get the kids doing more video work themselves, getting them to edit the footage was not really the learning goal for this particular exercise… it was all about their performance for the camera. After some experiments with iMovie I eventually decided that I’d cut it together with Premiere Pro instead. Premiere Pro was certainly not a program that I knew well, but this seemed like a great chance to get cosy with it. I’m glad I did… it’s a very impressive NLVE tool and I like it a lot more than Final Cut Pro 7.

I always try to make sure we set a good example for students regarding copyright, so it was important that all the background images were available under a Creative Commons licence. I think it’s really important that we demonstrate to our students that you can actually make worthwhile digital media without continually breaking copyright law. All the background images are CC licensed, as are the two pieces of music that I included, both from jamendo.com. The two videos were not released under CC, but using their YouTube contact address I wrote to the owners of both and both were more than happy for us to use their clip. One even offered to send us the hi-def footage! Most people are pretty generous if you just ask. Remember, Copyright doesn’t mean “you can’t use it”, it just means “you can’t use it without permission”, so if it’s not CC, then do the right thing and get permission! It’s just not that hard. (Publishing works under a Creative Commons license makes it much easier of course because it’s essentially an “up-front” permission which is pre-granted as long as you stick to the uses stipulated by the copyright owner)

After a couple of days of editing over the weekend, I did the final render to a 720p .m4v file and uploaded it to YouTube as a private link so the Philly kids (and our kids) could see it the next day.  Here’s the finished product…

It always nice to ceremonialise things that are a bit special, so we set a date for a premiere screening and invited all the Year 2 mums and dads in to watch. When the Year 1 Philadelphia kids watched it, they all wore Aussie bush hats and set up their classroom like the inside of a plane to watch the video.  We had our screening this morning and the movie played to a packed classroom of excited Year 2 students and their parents. Proud parents. Excited kids. Performing for a real audience. Making opportunities to create and practice and iterate. Immediate feedback. And lots of fun and laughs. An authentic learning experience?  You better believe it..

Kim tells me that her kids are working on the sequel for us, showing us their virtual trip to Philadelphia, so we are looking forward to that.

Lisa, our Year 2 teacher, now keeps asking me when we can do our next global project, and is coming up with lots of cool ideas for how it will fit into next terms syllabus.

Overall, I think I’d consider this whole thing a win, wouldn’t you. 🙂

ISTE in less than 140 Characters*

Pennsylvania Convention Centre
It’s been a big few weeks. I’m currently writing this while flying in an Air Canada Boeing 777, seat 40J, somewhere just south of the equator and slightly west of the International Date Line, chasing the sun around the globe on my way back to Sydney.

I’ve been in Canada for much of the last few weeks, visiting our Canadian family and friends, something I wish I could do more often. But for three days I managed to slip away down to Philadelphia PA for my first ISTE conference. If you know me, or read this blog at all, you may know that I tend to get around to a few conferences in various places, but the ISTE Conference (and prior to that, a NECC) has eluded me so far. For whatever reasons, I haven’t been able to get to this event so when the opportunity came up this year I jumped at it. And I’m glad I was able to… it is an amazing event.

In thinking about ISTE 2011 to decide what to blog about it, there are a few notable things to mention, but for me, one really stands out as the highlight.

First, there was the sheer size of it. With (I’m told) 20,000 delegates this year, the scale of ISTE is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Pennsylvania Convention Centre was simply enormous and easily housed the hundreds of exhibitors, vendors, workshops, presentations, displays, poster sessions, and of course, the thousands and thousands of attendees. I don’t know exactly how big the PACC actually is, but it’s huge.
Ed Tech Karaoke with David Wees
Secondly, the number of presentations taking place at any one time was mind boggling. There was so much choice, so many options, it was hard to know where to be. I only attended a few actual presentations, but the quality of the presenters and the information was very good. Whether your interest was in learning about the various edtech tools, in hearing about new pedagogical approaches, or finding out about new ideas for what works in today’s classrooms, there was something for everyone. Some sessions were huge, like the keynotes with 6000+ people, to presentations with a few hundred, to classroom-sized workshops, to poster session conversations; the choice available through the organized sessions was astounding.

There were also the fun events too. The Google Party held at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, held among the dinosaur bones and the fluttering butterflies, was great fun, and being invited to the invitation only Google Certified Teacher cocktail party beforehand was pretty special. The Edtech Karaoke Party the next night (#etk11), where we all had a few drinks and got up and sang, was one of those events I’m sure I’ll remember for a very long time.
Leigh Zeitz and I
But the thing that really made the ISTE event most valuable for me was the opportunity to meet and mix in person with the people in my PLN. It was, as someone observed, like having your RSS reader come to life. I was constantly bumping into people I knew, whose blogs I read, who appear daily in my Twitter stream, whose YouTube videos I’ve watched. Some I’d met before, but most I had only ever known online.

As you’ve probably experienced yourself, the best parts of most conferences are the serendipitous conversations, bumping into people in the corridor, having a chance to chat face to face. For me, ISTE was all about the people I met.

After the conference was over, I jotted down a list of all the people I’d had a conversation with over the previous three days, and the size of the list surprised me. In no particular order (other than that dictated by my slowly deteriorating memory!) here is a list of all the characters I met, chatted with, or had a meaningful conversation with over the three days I was at ISTE…

The (less than) 140 Characters

Me, Mike Gras and Paul R Wood
Paul R Wood @prwood
Mike Gras @mikegras
David Warlick @dwarlick
David Jakes @djakes
Sharon Peters @speters
Amanda Marrinan @marragem
Roger Pryor @pryorcommitment
Wes Fryer @wfryer
Jason Arruza @jarruza
Vinnie Vrotny @vvrotny
Martin Levins @levins
Angela Maiers @angelamaiers
Kevin Honeycutt @kevinhoneycutt
Carl Anderson @anderscj
Holly Hammonds @libraryquest
Angela MaiersLinda Swanner @lswanner1
Melanie Burford @mwburford
Lisa Neilsen @InnovativeEdu
Dvora Geller @teachdig
Mark Wagner @markwagner
Nancye Blair @engagingEDU
Lisa Thumann @lthumann
Wendy Gorton @wendygorton
Cathy Brophy @brophycat
Paula White @paulawhite
Erin Barrett @erinbarrett
Charlene Chausis @cchausis
Cheri Toledo @cheritoledo
Karen Fasimpaur @kfasimpaur
David Wees @davidwees
Wes and ILeigh Zeitz @zeitz
Brian C Smith @briancsmith
Roland Gesthuizen @rgesthuizen
Marg Lloyd @?
Tony Brandenberg @tbrandenburg
JamieLynn Griffith @jgriffith2
Steve Hargadon@stevehargadon
Beth Still @BethStill
Christopher Craft @crafty184
Maria Knee @mariaknee
Molly Schroeder @followmolly
Dean Shareski @shareski
Julie Lindsay @julielindsay
Lisa Parisi @lisaparisi
Diana Laufenberg @dlaufenberg
Brian Crosby, Lisa Parisi, Sharon Peters and IEllen Sheerin @esheerin
Chris Walsh @chriswalsh
Adrian Camm @adrian_camm
Tom Petra @RealWorldMath
Pete Moran @pjmctm2010
Brian Crosby @bcrosby
Maurice Cummins @mauricecummins
Jennifer Garcia @mrsjgarcia
Ginger Lewman @GingerTPLC
Alice Barr @alicebarr
Susan van Gelder @susanvg
Dean Muntz @?
Diane Main @dowbiggin
Benjamin Grey @bengrey
Kim Sivick and IKim Sivick @ksivick
Becky Crawford @Becstr9
Scott McLeod @mcleod
Bethany Smith @bethanyvsmith
Sam Gliksman @SamGliksman
Rob Griffith @rgriffithjr
Gail Lovely @glovely
Henry Theile @htheile
Chris Lehmann @chrislehmann
Bud Hunt @budtheteacher
Gary Stager @stager
Jim Marshall (Promethean)
Frank Augustino (Luidia)
Jason Orbaugh (Smart Tech)
Maria Knee and IJohann Zimmern (Adobe)
Adam Frey (Wikispaces)
Anita L’Enfant @anita_lenfant
Paul Fuller @paulfuller75
Linda Dickerson @?
Kyle Pace @kylepace
Michelle Baldwin @michellek107
Steve Dembo @teach42
Robin Ellis @robinellis
Dorothy Burt @dorothyjburt
George Couros @gcouros
Liz B Davis @lizbdavis
Kelly Dumont @kdumont
Kristina Peters @mrskmpeters
Alfred Thompson @alfredtwo
Bernie Dodge @berniedodge
Pamela Livingstone @plivings
Jason and Dawn (from Wisconsin, not sure of last names, met them on the train back to PHL airport)

That’s nearly 100 people and nearly 100 great conversations. (*I was aiming for 140… there were actually about 120 people on my original list but thanks to the lack of an undelete feature in Pages on the iPad, I lost a bunch names that I now just can’t recall! Grr! My apologies if I left you off the list!)

I think it just goes to show that the real power of an event like ISTE is in the people you meet and the conversations you have. That’s where the real connections are made and strengthened. Between the catch-ups with people I already knew quite well – like some of this year’s significant Aussie contingent – through to the folk I have previously met in the past, to the many who I have only ever known through our online connections, meeting in person and having the chance to connect and share and talk was what made ISTE truly priceless for me.

Thanks for being part of my network! See you in San Diego next year?

PS: If I have missed your name, or was unable to include your Twitter contact, please let me know so I can include it.

*PPS: Apologies (or thanks) to @lasic for the idea of the name for this post

Good Morning Vietnam

After leaving Shanghai the other day I traveled south to Hanoi, Vietnam.  My Sydney school has an “arrangement” with a Vietnamese school here.  The school is called the Vietnam Australia School, or VAS Hanoi, and the arrangement is that as well as the school offering a standard Vietnamese curriculum it also offers a scaled down and modified Australian curriculum focusing on English and Commerce.  This Australian component is taught by native English-speaking teachers, using courseware and textbooks developed by staff back at PLC Sydney, and the goal is to get the kids leaving school with qualifications in two languages and two countries.  I’ve been keen to get to VAS for a while to see what it’s all about, so when I asked my principal for permission to attend Learning 2.010 in Shanghai he suggested that I drop into VAS Hanoi on the way home and do some training and support for the staff here.

So for the past few days I’ve been at the school, seeing how it operates, talking to staff, meeting the kids, and generally trying to offer some support where I can.  There are certainly places where that support is needed, so it’s rewarding to be able to offer it.  Now that I have a clearer understanding of what’s going on here at VAS Hanoi I’d like to visit again at some point to really follow through on a few things.  For now though, that’s a decision that’s out of my hands.

I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with Hanoi though.  Don’t get me wrong, it has a definite charm, if charm is the right word.  Perhaps ‘character’ would be a better word.  The city of Hanoi is celebrating its 1000th birthday this year, so although I don’t know much else about its history, 1000 years is a long time, and it’s had plenty of time to cultivate that character.  The people are generally friendly, the food is excellent and inexpensive, there’s plenty of interesting culture, and the Vietnamese women are amongst the most beautiful in the world.  So what’s not to love?

While I’m enjoying seeing a new place and experiencing a new culture, there are a few things about Hanoi that I simply couldn’t deal with long term.  The obvious one is the traffic.  It’s crazy.  I mean, seriously crazy.  It’s one of those places where people can tell you it’s crazy, but until you see it for yourself you just have no idea.  I made a little video below to give you a look at what I mean.

The traffic also creates another problem… air quality.  The pollution from all those millions of bikes is frightening. I’ve had a hacking sore throat from almost the minute I stepped off the plane. At times it’s been hard to speak and hard to swallow, and I really don’t think I could live here for an extended period because if it.  In heavy traffic, the swarm of bikes also kick up a cloud of dust that further dirties the air.  I just couldn’t live with it long term.

The other thing that tarnished Hanoi a little for me is the fact that my iPhone was stolen the first night I got here.  I went for a walk along the streets to do some sightseeing, and a couple of rather pretty local girls pulled up on a motorcycle and asked me if i wanted to go for a ride around the block with them.  Naturally I said no… I wouldn’t jump on a bike with total strangers in a city with sane traffic, but especially not in Hanoi!  One of the girls was standing next to me, and started to rub me on the arms and shoulders and was trying to convince me to get on the bike, while the other talked to me. I basically said thanks but no thanks, spoke them to them for another minute or so, and then started to walk away.  As they rode off, I reached into my pocket to see what time it was, and there was no iPhone in my pocket.  I was so pissed off!

Luckily, I’d taken out travel insurance for this trip.  I don’t normally take insurance, but it seemed like a good idea for travelling in South East Asia just for the medical coverage so I ticked the box for that option when I booked the plane tickets.  I was a little less pissed off when I remembered that I had the insurance because it meant that the phone would probably be replaced, probably with an iPhone 4, so given that the insurance cost me all of $10, I’m very glad I took it out!  However, what won’t be replaced is the data added to my phone since the last sync, including a few very special podcast recordings and photos, etc.  Gone for good! So annoyed!!!

The insurance company said I needed to fill out a police report before they could process the claim, so I went to the local station, conveniently just across the road from my hotel. What a pack of losers. I’m told there is massive corruption in the police force here, and while I can’t personally vouch for the truth of that, I can certainly say there is massive unprofessionalism. The police on duty were a bunch of slobs; dirty, lazy, slow, unsure about how to fill out a report, and they treated the whole thing as a bit of a joke.  They seemed more than a little put out that I was actually making them do some work instead of leaving them alone to sit and watch television. Of course, they didn’t speak a single word of English, so I had to go back across the road and get the hotel concierge to come over and try and translate for me; this seemed to annoy them even more, since when they thought there was a language barrier they figured they could just fob me off. I think the concierge did an ok job of the translation, but really, who would know?  Overall though, if that’s the level of service and professionalism you got from official bodies like the police, I could never enjoy living here.

The other big reason I’m probably not enjoying Hanoi as much as I should be is just the fact that I’m on my own here.  Shanghai was fun because I had so much to look forward to, meeting people that I was genuinely excited to be hanging out with.  When you’re “hangin’ with your peeps” things are always lots more fun.  In Hanoi I don’t really know anyone, so it means eating meals on my own, sightseeing on my own, spending time on my own. Not a whole lot of fun really.  At this stage I’m just really looking forward to going home to my Linda.

Anyway, here’s a bunch of photos I took on my walk tonight if you’re interested. I took them with the new Nikon S4000 I picked up duty free as I left Sydney airport, and for a camera without any manual controls (and the fact that I didn’t have a tripod with me) they aren’t too bad for night time shots.  The traffic is particularly bad because today is the day of the annual Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, so it’s somewhat crazier than usual!

Oh, and here’s the video…

Travelling Freak Show

Chinese people, as a general rule, have dark hair.  As a race of people, they also tend to not be quite as tall as some other races of people.  And you could be forgiven for thinking that most Chinese people adhere to fairly strict diets because they tend to be fairly slim in build.

Now before you accuse me of making racist remarks, I’m simply making an observation on what I’ve seen.  And apparently the Chinese people themselves would concur with these observations because whenever they see a westerner (or “big nose” as they call us) who is tall, heavily built or has non-black hair, they tend to stare and talk.  Because I’m fairly tall, in some cases I even had some of the Shanghai locals come up and ask to have their photo taken with me, such is their interest in these strange “big nose” visitors.

So you can imagine the attention we drew when myself, Wes Fryer, Gail Lovely and Melinda Alford decided to spend a day of sightseeing in Suzhou, (苏州市) a city to the west of Shanghai.  Wes is as tall as I am, but with blonde hair. Gail has hair that is blonde bordering on redhead. And Melinda has a wild shock of long dark hair and a stocky frame.  Together as a group, we must have looked like a travelling freak show.

Our day started with a taxi ride from Pudong to Puxi and the local railway station.  The railway station was amazing… more like an airport.  People were lined up to buy tickets at the many vending machines outside the terminal, and you do need to specify exactly what train you plan to catch as all seating is allocated. Once a train is full you can’t get a seat.

The trains themselves are high speed, and we got one of the brand new G-series trains that covers the 120km (75 miles) from Shanghai to Suzhou in a mere 25 minutes.  At one point we clocked our speed at over 270km/h.  I don’t think any of us realised just how fast we were going until we got off the train at Suzhou station and another train went through on a different line. It was a bit of a blur!

Once out of the massive Suzhou railway station, Melinda, who speaks some Chinese, managed to do some negotiations with a local driver to transport us around for the day.  For a very small fee he was to be our guide (well, our driver… with little English, he didn’t really say a lot!) and take us around to some of the sights of the city.  To be honest, we had no idea where he would be taking us, but we just trusted him to do it.

As it turns out, I thought we got a great snapshot into some of the sights of Suzhou.  We started out at the Beisi Pagoda, a 9-story temple with a history that goes back some 1700 years.  Wes and I climbed to the very top for photos and to marvel at the view.

We then visited a silk factory.  China is known for its silk production and Suzhou was one of the main cities on the famous Silk Road.  It was interesting to see how they spin the silk into threads, quite literally just unravelling the silkworm cocoon and using machinery to spin the very fine silk threads into a fibre. They also used some interesting techniques that stretched the cocoons over a bamboo frame to produce a silk web that was then stretched out over a bed-sized frame in layers to produce a silk blanket.  Of course, no visit to any sort of factory such as this would be complete without exiting via the giftshop!  I started to video inside the giftshop but was very quickly told to turn off the camera because it was not allowed.  At first I thought that was odd until I realised how many products they had that used Disney characters… I’m guessing that they aren’t paying Disney a whole lot of licensing fees for the use of Donald and Mickey?

By the way, as we entered the silk factory a little Chinese guy with no real English came up to me and started pointing at my arms and touching them… I think he was making comment on my height and build, implying that I had big arms (I don’t think I do, but he seemed to think so) and this was fairly typical of the sort of attention that our little “gang of four” got as we traveled around.

Our driver decided that he would do a little “side job” while we in the silk factory, so we went and had lunch while we waiting for him.  We found a fast food noodle and dumpling place where Melinda placed an order in Chinese (thank goodness we had Melinda with us…  this would have all been so much harder otherwise!) and we soon has a fast food feast on the table.  It was kind of funny, because the food was all soups and dumplings and noodles, but the store felt exactly like a McDonalds or KFC.  The menus were all in Chinese of course.

After lunch we kept touring around, getting plenty of sideways glanced from the locals who seemed to think that we were a bit of a novelty.  Our driver picked us up and took us down by the river where we struck a deal with a barge owner to take us into the water city.  It was a bit of a highlight of the day, as we had our own private barge to show us the city from the water. Melinda said she’d been to the city many times but always on foot, and thought that seeing it from the water was the way to go.  It would have been nice to get off the barge at some point and go exploring a little, but instead we navigated our way into the central part of the canal system before turning around and going back to our waiting driver.  We all laughed when our boat captain got on the phone and rang our driver to ask (translated thanks to Melinda) “Where are you?  I’ve got your Big Noses here”.

To finish our day, we went to a silk embroidery factory and saw some silk artwork being made. Our guide was very informative, with quite good English, and he explained the finer points of silk embroidery… it’s quite an artform!

After that we visited a lovely traditional Chinese garden.  Well, I guess it was kind of traditional if you don’t count the animatronic figures in the displays! Some of them were pretty funny.  Overall though, the gardens were very nice and we all went for a walk up and down the river, taking photos and talking.

Back at the railway station waiting for our train, we were still getting checked out by the locals. People would sit in bemusement as we walked past, not quite sure what to make of the four of us. We certainly stood out.  As we waited, Wes started working on a digital story project using a terrific little iPhone app called Storykit, while I let some little Chinese kids play Fruit Ninja on my iPhone.

The trip back to Shanghai was quick and we grabbed a taxi back to Pudong, where we had dinner in an American-style cafe.  There was lots of laughing and fun as we shared a few drinks, reflected on our day, and unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate the robustness of Chinese paper money.  We finished off our day with a bit of shopping at the local Best Buy, before grabbing a taxi back to our hotel.

Overall, a great day shared with great folk.  Let’s do it again sometime…

Fullsize photos on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/betchaboy/sets/72157624864632311/

Experiencing the Unexpected

This is the first time I’ve ever done this, but I’d like to welcome a guest writer to Betchablog.  This post was written by one of my work colleagues, Pam Nutt, and was actually the first part of her welcoming address to staff for the start of the 2010 school year.  I enjoyed hearing Pam deliver this address to our teachers so I asked if she’d mind posting it here for all to read.  As you’ll discover, it was based on some of her experiences in Alice Springs in outback Australia, and I liked the way she linked it back to kids and learning.  Enjoy!

“You’re  so privileged,” some said. “Very few people see the Todd flowing.”  Others, with an almost  reverential whisper, said “Only 1% of tourists see water flowing from Uluru.”

The sign outside the Alice Springs Desert Park said it all: “You will never look at deserts in the same way again.” Indeed. Torrential rain. Enormous umbrellas that benefited little. Puddles that we gave up walking around and just walked through. Pathways that resembled miniature Venetian canals.

I have to admit to a few churlish thoughts early on in that four and a half days of rain in the Red Centre. We were, after all, travelling with overseas friends, and the whole experience was meant to be postcard perfect – living, breathtaking Ken Duncan panoramas. And what was one of my first purchases in Alice Springs? An umbrella!

But it’s the surprise of it all that stays in my memory. The Todd not only flowing but breaking its banks in a spectacular display; the sound of it as well as the sight; the excitement of tourists and locals alike as we were all drawn down to the dry riverbed that had turned into an ever-expanding rush of noisy fast-flowing water.

And so the saga continued, with moment after moment taking us by surprise. Did it ever occur to you that you could be drowned in the torrent flowing down Kata Tjuta? That the road could be washed away in huge sections, barring your way to the MacDonnells? And to top it off, that Uluru should be shrouded in a mist that, rather than limiting our vision, enhances the mystery of the place.

Our final day at Uluru began with the obligatory dawn viewing – misty clouds on the top; subtly changing pastels beneath; the dawn of a beautifully sunny day and the sight of waterfalls glistening on the Rock. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected but it’s that sense of surprise, even awe, that remains with me. It’s a powerful and living landscape, not merely a postcard, and the fact that it was a shared experience enriched it further. Long live the experience of the unexpected.

It’s the unexpected that brings our experiences into sharp and memorable focus. I don’t wish to diminish events of unexpected horror and tragedy by not centering my thoughts on such moments. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the fact that out of our ordinary experiences come moments that can transform – the extraordinary behind the ordinary, as Patrick White observed. The power of the unexpected experience gives fresh meaning to the ordinary details of our lives.

Think of our classrooms. The fact that we have detailed programmes, desired outcomes and well-planned strategies clearly outlines what we expect in them. And these expectations are in no way to be derided, nor is the satisfaction that, at the end of it all, we’ve accomplished set goals. But I don’t ever recall being joyously excited by this. Satisfied. Happy. Gratified. Even relieved, perhaps. But what gives greatest cause for excitement are the unexpected moments that highlight the experiences of individual students. They’re often unexpected because they operate outside the formality of our written curriculum.

There’s the ‘A-ha!’ moment when a struggling student has suddenly grasped an elusive concept in terms that mean something to her.  It could be a moment we easily miss – the rest of the class has got it quite some time earlier and moved on. But suddenly, there’s a “This poem really says what it feels to…” or “Macbeth could be a today story!” or ‘There’s a pattern here that I can finally understand and apply. It makes sense!” Then you know that a student has reached out and grabbed an idea for herself, rather than noted what you’ve said in order to give it back to you in an assessment task, intelligibly or otherwise.

There’s the moment when a clever, ambitious  and articulate student quietly reaches out to spend time with someone who just doesn’t get it , taking joy from the shared experience of learning and celebrating what could seem to her to be a lesser achievement. There are the moments when students are prepared to laugh and talk with you, not just merely take down notes about what you are saying, or ask what they could have done to get 20/20 instead of 19/20. Or when a student from years ago meets you and says, “I remember in one of our classes…“ and they go on to tell you of something that they built into their life because of some interaction in a classroom.

There are the times when a group learns how to deal with accepting that not everyone is like them but is to be valued. Or the times when they understand why they are privileged, even though they’re not given everything they want. It’s a joy to see someone who rarely dips below an A sharing the moment with a student who’s excited about getting a C+.  In the rush and pressure of teaching, it’s easy to miss those moments. It’s a joy when we experience the unexpected and it brings us back to the things that really count – what kind of people we are, what we value, where our hopes lie.

At all levels in our lives, experiencing the unexpected can have a profound impact. Valuing the unexpected in our classrooms, for example, goes far beyond expecting certain outcomes in relation to some learning stage. And such an experience of the unexpected, whether it be part of an intellectual, emotional or spiritual journey, may well have begun somewhere in a classroom, both for the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll never look at these unexpected experiences in the same way again.

Words and Video by Pam Nutt
CC BY-NC-ND Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/skemsley/204933908

San Jose update

Just a quick update from San Jose.  I arrived here today after catching the Caltrain down here from SanFran, or “the city”.  Great weather, lots of sunshine, and about 10 degrees (C) warmer than SF. Checked into the hotel and then went for a walk around San Jose… it’s a pretty place, nicely laid out with wide boulevards and rows of palm trees everywhere, and plenty of Spanish Mission architecture.  After I got off the train it was pretty easy to find where I was going… the twin towers of the Adobe building are one of the tallest in town.  (I can’t believe how low the planes come in to land at San Jose airport though… it almost seems as though they just skim over the top of the Adobe building!)  I also spent a couple of hours at The Tech Museum of Innovation…  very interesting stuff, including an awesome full dome screen IMAX movie about California.

Anyway, here’s a quick video I made as I sat in Cesar Chaves park…