A dinosaur grapples with technology's place in education

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Fungal Network

The Culture and Identity strand of the Liger Learning Center is now up on its Khmer feet, seeking distant horizons. We began by examining and photographing on the Liger campus itself, driven by the question: Which things here feel native to my culture and which feel alien? As we began on an Arts Wednesday, a secondary discussion also occurred: What makes a compelling and effective photo? The students roved over the campus in pairs, limited to two pictures per team (in the age of digital photography, the temptation is to shoot non-stop and stop 'looking' for the shot). This way they at least had to shoot and then delete and I didn't end up with 500 photos in my dropbox. This segued into a brainstorm of Khmer indicators for future study. We came up with 4 and a hmmmm. Government and Royalty; The Arts; Food (production, marketing, consumption); Religion and Custom.  The 'hmmmm' includes sports, games, jobs, industry, etc.

What better place to start than Food!
 What better place to begin a study of food than the mighty fungi kingdom!
We dove in with a look at a personal hero, Paul Stamets- Mr. Mycology himself.
Here is the clip we watched, well worth two minutes twenty-five seconds of time, shot by the grandmaster of stop time photography, Louie Schwartzberg:

Subsequently we looked at photos and drawings of mushrooms and drew them, followed by a rumination: What do I think I know about mushrooms? What questions can I ask to find out more?
 The photo above is an example. 
Increasingly, I believe observation and drawing are as important skills as listening or writing. A deeper neural understanding may in fact enter through the eye and exit through the drawing hand, or may reach a different and no less important part of our intellect/heart than the linguistic. We spend 12 years or so in school honing literacy and numeracy skills. Given the state of humanity- could equal time given to musical/visual/dance skills harm? 

We see it, we think it, we draw it. Then we go touch it and smell it and see it in person.

The follow-up from this morning.
We headed down the road a piece in the school tuk tuk and bus to visit our local mushroomery. We were met by the terrifically gracious owner who gave the students a 45 minute tour of the operation, including an extended question and answer session. This happened not just once but twice! Each group had 4 photographers and six reporters documenting the event.
Since all the information was in Khmer, I had to garner all my information through my eyes.

The process begins with rubber tree sawdust from Vietnam. Something happens to this. It changes in color and texture. This new mix is packed into small bags.

The bags are sorted and sealed.
Then they go into a big steam chamber and a fire is lit under the chamber which burns for hours and hours.
These are broken open and repacked into new bags. To kill all bacteria? (Note to self- Get back on the Khmer learning track!)

 These are dosed with spores from a small glass bottle. The spores emerge from a separate process, equally mysterious to this cub reporter.
They get stacked up and covered with black tarps to provide a cover of darkness. For up to six months they provide mushrooms.
This particular iteration of medium is all but spent and will soon be replaced.

The proprietor of this thriving business was a security guard at Saboon's last project. He researched and learned the craft on his own outside any school. He began the business entirely on his own, with nothing.

It was a lesson in nature, in agriculture, in business.

It was super cool.

And then you are holding this marvel, and you see it in its marvelousness.

There will be more where that came from...

More marvelous still than the mushrooms or this sprouting business...

The Liger students themselves- their boundless focus and curiosity; their appetite for knowing.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Great Expectations

In the discussion of teachers and teaching, little recognition is given to the  energy, planning time, and sheer work it takes to pull off a successful learning project.  For a performance or visual arts teacher it may be doubly so.

From the outside, hearing teachers talk about a lack of time may seem ridiculous or indulgent. How hard can it be to 'entertain' kids?  Examine a teacher's schedule. Perhaps the built-in planning time could be replaced by teaching time, reducing class size and therefore minimizing teacher hiring, thus saving important funds for technology or buildings.

Granted- a bad teacher simply wastes planning time or uses it as personal time, perpetually relying on canned or previously used tactics and materials when working with students. Under this model of teacherdom the initial year is a living hell- one plans and implements all manner of lessons, and from there it is a long, slow unwinding towards the golden finish where one collects the best paycheck and does the least work.

I well remember the epitome of this teacher, an English teacher on the verge of retirement when I started high school teaching in Maine. I ran into him in the teachers' lounge (a place of which I have never been fond), the day prior to the students' first day. He had a massive box of xeroxes, neatly compiled groups of 25 sheet cross-hatch-stacked busy work. That, he beamed proudly, gets me to Christmas! This was a man who, when he found I was tackling my personal favorite Great Expectations, rushed to his 'teacher closet'with eager excitement, fumbled in its dusty recesses, and pulled out a triple cassette VHS. BBC version...not half bad...and it is six, six! hours!

My friend and fellow teacher Dwight Blue often reminds me that teaching done right may be one of the most underpaid and challenging jobs extant, but as practiced by- what? a majority? a certain population?- one of the slackest. Tenured babysitting with decent benefits and summers off. Think back on the 16 or so years of schooling most of receive. The two or three memorable teachers probably fell into that first realm of practice. One where no matter the planning time allotted it never could have sufficed; you knew these teachers were sacrificing their weekends and vacations, staying awake considering the needs of their students, pursuing new discoveries in their field, reading, thinking, reflecting.

The rest? Well, most of the others fell into some kind of middle ground- doing a workaday job, trying to balance teaching with a family life, or else simply getting a little more tired as the years went by, run down by the constantly changing barrage of directives handed down from powers above, by disgruntled and oftentimes spoiled students, by hectic schedules and poorly coordinated support.

Then there were the truly abysmal papier-mâché Mephistopheles like my colleague in Maine, counting his pension pennies as his days wound down. Most likely we have all experienced such a type. As student, they simply meant a boring or frustrating year, something to be worked around and endured, a  'slack class'. As a parent we have gnashed our teeth and cursed such types (along with their administrative twins who turned a blind or lazy eye of their own).

The premise of Liger is realizing the future of a promising child. The promise of The Liger Learning Center hinges on the efforts of great teachers. Jo Masterman is certainly up to the task. She has an international career that spans from aboriginal kids in the sticks of Australia, to the Sultanate of Brunei, to running the art department at the highly prestigious Western Academy of Bejing. Over thirty years of experience shine through in the thought, care, and preparation she brings every day to her work with the children. On the weekends she trundles about Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk, ferreting out deals on rolls of paper and tiny mirrors, haunting the markets and alleyways where few westerners venture. She snatches up bits of refuse and chaff, turning a shipping box into a puppet theater stage, garbage into storage containers. When Jo has 50 kids for three hours, it is no one-off entertainment. Rather it is a jigsaw piece in a process puzzle, one skill building to the next, a specific endpoint in mind further down the road.

Here she is setting up on the deck for a portrait project the students completed just before heading back to their homes for Pchum Ben holiday.

Jo had already done weeks of portraiture build-up exercises. Here we worked as a whole school (all staff were invited to join in), so the project not only served an individual artistic function, but it built authentic community in a way no schlocky 'educational program' can match.

The stack of photos and pictures in the middle are exemplars. Jo always leads with a varied array of possible directions to head off towards. Though she is self-deprecating about her art, Jo always models the steps of a project for the students as well. Showing how to take risks, how to let go of fear self-consciousness. That blue head peeking out from underneath is yours truly, done by Jo.

With the requisite materials in place, each individual given space, all that is left is the unfurling of creative imagination. For that, Jo has a remarkable sense of needed time.

Importantly, for Jo art is not some mushy free-for-all. It is not throwing macaroni or shapes randomly on paper. Some might see her boundaries as constrictive or too 'grown up'. Though the students are young, Jo's expectations are serious and elevated. She takes the students' ability to focus and perform with gravitas; she has a deep sense of the purpose and possibility of arts education. Though Jo promotes self-directed learning and student ownership, as the process rolls forward Jo is not averse to nudge forward and guide. If a student simply decides to ignore the parameters of a project, Jo is not averse to bringing them back. Her projects are not anything goes.

The students respond by producing deeply reflective, considered work. They are absorbed and focused for hours.

         That does not mean that the time is devoid of camaraderie or joyless.

                                               Far from it.

But it is certainly not silly child's play.  The students accept her constrictions because they trust her. She never violates the integrity of a student's work. Further, Jo's efforts are not about Jo's ego. 
They are about authentic work.  Remarkable.

Tellingly, Jo often reaches out to the administrative and support staff to partake alongside the students. Here are two of our cleaners, an intern, and someone from the office.

     And our operations manager, an amazing person in his own right.

After the students got to a certain point in their portrait, they added 'thought bubbles' stating an appreciation for some aspect of the school.

For certain students, not to have an artistic outlet in their schooling would be the equivalent of starving.  Some students revel in any given space and time to create visually.  Every student finds a measure of success.

                  They are deep wells, these Liger students.

  Naturally, Jo builds in time for group observation and reflection into her work.

I have worked with many teachers armed with the latest educational lingo and formulas, who know how to put on a suitably professional demeanor. Yet the ones kids talk about twenty years later, the ones who enable kids to know what they can do given the opportunity and a push, the ones who impact lives most deeply, are the ones like Walter Rosenberry, my 9th grade history teacher, from whom one spare compliment meant more than a thousand gaseous praises, the ones like my son's drama teacher at Oceanside High School in Maine, Alison Machaiek, who took him over four years from the drummer in the pit to the lead in a searing tragedy.
Demanding. A little daunting at times. Dedicated.

That's Jo Masterman,  master teacher.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


When Max, one of the interns at Liger, suggested an all campus, all staff 'rpg', the only acronym I could call up was 'Rocket Propelled Grenade'. I hardly could see how that would work at peace-loving Liger Center! Of course, anyone less a fossil than myself would know Max was describing a 'Role Playing Game'.

More fun; less destructive.

This is how an RPG ( or at least ours) works. The kids came to morning assembly and were informed that four of the staff suffered some kind of 'problem'. It was up to the students to find out the nature of the cure and then to locate the source of the problems.

Jo had lost the ability to speak English

She understood and spoke only Chinese. Another teacher could not recognize shapes, another had lost her coordination. The students were divided into teams of four and given an initial set of bartering beans. With these beans they could buy clues to understanding what we required. They could earn more beans through several methods. The first was to gather trash from the campus and turn it in to Max, the game designer.

 Another way to earn beans was to do math problems and games with Emily.

They could also do word searches.

My 'problem' was that I had lost my ability to smile. I chose this role when I found out what they had to do to return my smile, knowing it would provide a wonderful sight. I was not disappointed.

Through a series of separate clues, they found that they had to have either a hat, oversized ears, or an umbrella, plus a tail. They had to do an original crazy dance while singing a song.

 It had to be all four members of the team at the same time. Often a team would be close and try to improvise the final clues (hence the dresses and other strange twists).

Needless to say, it was darn hard to keep a frown on when they were minus a single element, going nuts trying to push me to crack a smile so they could claim my certified signature and their allotment of 'mission-solved'  beans

It was a photographic field day, giving me a chance to experiment with the manual settings on my Canon.

All of the teams cured the teachers, and, nicely, though there was a certain competitive nature of the quest, there truly weren't any 'winners'. In our post-RPG reflections, I shared with the students an insight that hit home with me that day: How much I smiled on a given day in their company, how difficult it was not to. Also, that I felt a genuine sadness grow inside when I put on my mock sad face, a genuine lift when I could again smile.

The day did not go without a hitch. A few of the younger students became upset seeing their teachers 'suffering'. Though they knew we were acting and it was a game, a few of them just got overwhelmed and needed support. One or two groups did not quite meld constructively, and they also needed some adult 'lifts' to muster on. As I write this we are further on by several weeks, and we know them better- their tolerances and predilections- thanks to teacher debriefing on days such as this. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tower Tech Challenge

As noted, post Trevor and Agnieszka's visit we did three tech challenges with the students. The first was a classic egg drop: construct a protective envelop for an egg dropped at height. Of all the groups only one survived wholly intact. The next challenge was creating clothing for one boy and one girl using only newspaper and tape, described in my last post.

The third tech challenge was to build the tallest tower which could stand on its own and support a uniformly determined 'flag', again using only newspaper, tape, and this time a bit of string.

Groups worked furiously, and at time fruitlessly, racing against the clock and stealing ideas from other teams as they went.

In this challenge, the groups self selected, which provided some interesting and different results. First of all, most of teams, as one would expect all over the world, were single gender. And I would say just anecdotally that the ratio of cooperation and fun/success to frustration/tears was about the same.

I was kept busy bounding about, jumping up on the rails and then lying flat on my back, taking photos. The beauty of such activities, for a photographer, is that the kids are so busy and focused they don't have time to throw in their stock poses and gestures, mugging for the camera, which they LOVE to do.

I have been assembling a slide show for the school documenting the experiences of Liger's inaugural first weeks. If this time is passing quickly for me, I can't imagine what a blur it must be in the mind of an eight year old village kid. Once I have the show together I will save it and upload it.
In the end the team who first developed the notion of a tripod leg ran out of tape and so could not get their tower to stand freely.However, in the post discussion debriefing, Robert made a big deal out of their innovation and also the virtue of borrowing a good idea. All in all it was a high energy day with endless opportunities for learning; about teamwork, creativity, physics, stewardship of materials- the list goes on.