Scrapbook: The Traveling Book

Few projects leave me with this feeling of accomplishment as the Scrapbook did. I have Reinhard Marx to thank for it. He, along with a colleague, came up with the idea of creating a book that would travel the world – literally. After visiting 19 schools in different continents, visiting hundreds of children of all ages and traveling 75000 kilometers round the globe (yes, you read that number right) it finally arrived back where it started, in Sundern, Germany. Where had it been to? Well, Canada, the USA, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Ireland, Sweden, Japan, Pakistan, Taiwan, Austria, The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, and Argentina. See for yourself.

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How did this international school project come to be? Well, just like most ideas – with a pinch of crazy and a group of people willing to follow. In a nutshell, Reinhard spread the word around through his PLN through social media, teachers signed up using a Google Sheet, a schedule was created and the book, an A4 ring binder filled with empty sheets, set sail to more than a dozen different schools with one aim: it was to be filled out by students following the premise “The way we are”. That single sentence sparked completely different interpretations. Some kids wrote about their school, others about national birds, sports, clothes or food. It did not matter. They were all collaborating to create a single product: a book. Stop for a second and think the implications of it all. In the age of all things digital, we are using technology to connect, to do research, but we are creating an analog product, something tangible. And what I also liked about the project was what it covertly taught: identity, collaboration, empathy, community. All through a few A4 pages in a ring binder. Who knew.

 

My 6th graders back in Buenos Aires working on the book

 

The binder when we got it. It had already traveled a bit as you can see in the stickers.

I surprised my students with the project with a Mystery Hangout that featured the teacher who had sent the book from Brazil, Renata. Once they guessed where she was from I told them we were collaborating with her and her students and voilà, I unveiled the book. The girls worked hard on it and I’m proud of what they came up with. When they were done, we sent the book off to its next destination, Australia.

I presented the project at the Interfaces Congress of the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. It was awarded a special mention in its category, the highest recognition it could get. The paper will be published in February 2018 in the academic journal Reflexión Académica en Diseño y Comunicación [1668-1673] You can read the full paper here (in Spanish) The project also got coverage in German media. The article (in German, of course) can be found here.

There will be another Scrapbook in the school year 2017-2018. If you feel like taking part, just send me a message and we’ll count you in.

What is my take away from taking part in this project?

Empathy. Small word, huge concept. We live in a time when global awareness, social responsibility, and empathy are crucial to the development of a well-balanced society. Our students are bombarded day after day with news of promises of walls being built between countries, people being beaten by the color of their skin or the religion they profess, or whole families being sent back to the same country they almost died trying to escape from. Empathy is not a luxury, it is rather a vital trait we need to develop. Most of the fears that arise from being in contact with those who are different arises from sheer ignorance. If we tackle ignorance, we weed out that fear. Cultural and religious diversity is enriching, not something to be scared of.

A simple activity like the making of the Scrapbook generates this virtuous cycle. It forces self-reflection by making students think about their identity. It confronts them with someone else who is different and introduces them to different cultures, points of view and values. And in this asynchronous dialogue through a couple of A4 sheets of paper in a sticker-covered binder, we learn about others by learning about ourselves.

And together we build.

When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence. –Unknown.

 

 

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How a Mystery Skype helped me fight stereotypes

I like to think of myself as a fairly open minded-person. I have my share of prejudices, just like everyone else, but I do try to become aware of them and change them as much as I can.

I was surprised, though, when I encountered a completely unexpected reaction from my 6th graders while reading a book. Background: every year, in class we read four books, graded readers, actually, since they are EFL students) One of those books is a short story called “Meet me in Istanbul”, a sort of detective story/romance set, of course, in Turkey’s largest city. This was probably the 5th group of students I read the book with and it’s a story they usually like. It has mystery, a bit of action, some romantic scenes; pretty interesting for an 11-year-old.

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This year, though, was different. When I presented the book I could already see some reluctant looks and even some requests for a different one. I was gobsmacked. Why? They didn’t even know what the story was about. I tried “selling” it the best way I could, but failed miserably. Still, I found it hard to understand why. And then it happened. One of them said, “I don’t want to read a book about terrorists”. My jaw dropped to the floor and it would have dropped to the basement too if we had one. I asked them to tell me a bit more about this and then it all made perfect sense: in their mind, anything related to the Middle East and Islam was equated with bombs, terrorism, and death. Inasmuch as I tried convincing them otherwise, it was just my word against, well, the world. And why would they believe a word I said? Every day for the past weeks, they have been bombarded with news about the Brussels bombings at the airport and metro.

I was faced with two choices: change the book and move on, or use this as a teaching experience. And you guessed it, I chose the latter. Fear is born out of ignorance and you fight ignorance with education. I figured if they had a hard time believing me, then I needed back up. I resorted to my PLN and managed to get the contact of a Turkish teacher who lived in Istanbul. For obvious reasons, we could not do the traditional Mystery Skype with our classes, one being in Turkey, the other in Buenos Aires, so she kindly accepted doing it after school, on her own. I got my students ready, they came up with questions they wanted to ask her and we set a date. The general feeling for the video call was positive, except for a few students, one in particular (the”I don’t want to read a book about terrorists” one)

I wish I could find the right words to express what it feels like to see the transition between very uptight and suspicious students into these open-minded and amazed. Their expressions and their posture changed. Arms uncrossed, eyes wide-open, hands flying into the air to ask more questions. Meryem had demolished all these prejudices in a 25-min conversation with patience, kindness and a bit of Meghan Trainor (isn’t she the best???)

You know an activity was successful when your students refuse to hang up and go to recess. And this was the case. Needless to say, the reading of the book was an absolute pleasure (and with interspersed comments like “This is the place Meryem told us about!”)

But by far the best comment came from that student that had inadvertently sparked this activity. As soon as we hung up, I asked them how they had felt and if they had learned anything from this experience. When she raised her hand, I have to admit I was slightly guarded. But then she said “I learned that Muslim people are good people” And my jaw dropped again, but this time, out of happiness.

The Power of Connection

I have been fairly active on social media for some time. Whether on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ (my two favorite ways of building my PLN), I’d always made sure I check posts and keep up with the latest. But I kept having this feeling I was taking the back seat and not really participating actively. Well, that has definitely changed.

Early this year, I posted a question on a Google+ Community and immediately got all kinds of solutions to my problem. It still amazes me how many people are willing to give you a hand, even though they have no clue who you are. One of those teachers who replied was Reinhard, a German Science teacher. A couple of weeks later, he sent me a message, connecting me to a fellow Argentine teacher who was presenting in an ARTESOL conference in Buenos Aires. We ended up meeting for coffee thanks to someone we’ve never met on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m taking part of my first Mystery Hangout, where I got to talk to people in the UAE, Oman, India, Argentina, Germany, the US. Mind blowing.

Once you start, there’s no going back. Reinhard invited me to a second Hangout with a US teacher from Ohio who was doing a PD meeting and trying to introduce Mystery Hangouts to her colleagues. You can check out Sebastian’s Slideshare of the Hangout here.

Teaching can be quite lonely at times and the Internet provides you with the possibility of reaching out to like-minded educators. Educators from which you can learn. And who can also learn from you.

Taking the leap

Sharing your thoughts with others can be daunting at times. Starting this blog was not an easy task for me. I love writing, always have. And I have this great need to share what I learn, discover, find. But the idea of putting myself out there was a deterrent at times. What if people don’t like what I write about? What if I make a mistake? What if the things I write about are considered too simple, worthless?

But good ol’ Pinterest came to the rescue with one of Sir Ken Robinson’s ground-shaking phrases: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” It is a statement he made in his famous TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?” (a MUST-see video, if you ask me)

  

There will always be someone who knows far more than you. And there will also be someone who does not. Isn’t that why I chose teaching at the end of the day? To help others discover things they would not be able to on their own? To inspire them, to lighten a spark, to make a difference. And no differences can be made if you don’t put yourself out there, if you don’t become vulnerable.
And so all these what ifs started invading my head. What if what I thought had some truth to it? What if the lessons I had prepared were inspiring? What if my ideas were not as simple as I thought? And so I applied for a scholarship for a British Council Summer School. A few weeks later, I am staring at the screen, open-mouthed, having a hard time believing what I was looking at. I had been chosen, along with other 15 EFL teachers, to represent my city at their 2012 Summer School. Gobsmacked. I ended up meeting a committed group of professionals, who innovate, create, inspire in very adverse contexts sometimes. And I also learnt about myself. I discovered that I did have something to offer, I could help colleagues learn new things. Just as I had learnt from other teachers, other teachers could learn from me as well. And they did. 
Opening up, taking the leap paid off. I was asked by the BC to deliver a workshop for fellow EFL teachers in Buenos Aires. One, two, three workshops later I was on cloud nine. This was it. This is what I wanted to do. I must confess speaking in front of XX colleagues and teaching them how to incorporate technology in their classes is not easy. Some people have a knack for public speaking. I have a knack for public panicking.

But all’s well that ends well. And it did. And what’s best is that it has a kind of domino effect. The workshops led to two others of my own and tons of ideas for many more. Fear is an anchor that will not let you set sail and discover a whole new set of possibilities. So what are you waiting for? Take the leap, get connected, start your PLN, share whatever it is you know and learn, learn, learn.

Patience, grasshopper.

One of the things that has been going through my mind lately is time. Whatever it is we are learning, however old or experienced as learners we may be, we need time. Time to incorporate the new knowledge, to practise with it, to make it ours so then we can experiment with it and ultimately own it.

I am not going to deny that incorporating technology into our teaching practice is challenging. But it is through that challenge that we can improve and grow as professionals. 

I recently came across the conclusions to an Australian study on developing teacher competency in ICT. The report identified four main stages in incorporating the use of technology in the classroom.

1. Access: This is an initial stage, with teachers familiarising themselves with technology and learning how to use it. 
2. Adopting technology: Teachers use techonology to support their traditional teaching strategies. They mimic what they used to do in their pre-tech days, using the new technology.
3. Adapting: technology is incorporated in traditional teaching practice with an emphasis on students’ productivity.
4. Appropriating: teachers experiment with new ways of using technology. The focus is on collaborative work and sharing. Technology becomes the means and not the end.
5. Innovating: There is a fifth stage, seldomly attained by teachers. It is the stage of innovating, of discovering new ways of using technology in the learning process.

This is process that, according to Jordi Adell, takes between 3 to 5 years. Can you say “Patience, grasshopper”?

What can we gather from all this? Well, to start with, I think we need patience. Both with ourselves and our colleagues. Learning is a process and, as such, it demands time. Time, however, needs to go hand in hand with effort. Some may be reluctant to adopting technology in their classes, but that is a bury-your-head-in-the-sand attitude that will lead to nowhere. Digital natives have invaded our classrooms and they need to be taught how to use technology efficiently, responsibly and safely. Needless to say, well-thought, sensibly-administered and educationally-oriented public policies must be set up in order to allow teachers the time to reflect, learn, explore and share.