A dinosaur grapples with technology's place in education

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. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fashion Tech Challenge

In our transition from the 'summer camp' mode to the academic lab school mode, we are taking three days to do alternative challenges. Day one saw students divided into teams of four, faced with a bag of materials and a time limit. In this one, they had to design and create clothing for one boy and one girl in 25 minutes using newspaper and tape.
The students were terrifically cooperative and got right at it.
Here is one of our stars, fitting some sleeves. I love the flower tucked in his ear.
You can tell the kids really hated the whole thing. Like this young lady, clearly bored to tears!
 The nice thing about working on the open deck was that groups could steal ideas freely, such as head gear.
Secretly in the art room, Nica and Clara were working on their own smashing ensemble using the same materials and under the same  time constraints.
We finished with a proper fashion show including a prance up the cat walk.
As one of the judges, I had my work cut out for me (points for style, coverage, catwalk, and durability), but in the end it was unanimous for  our winners, for their creative flourishes.
 We finished with our surprise guest strutting her stuff to hoots and hollas!
Our subsequent challenge involved a bit more direct structural engineering, building a "flag pole"

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Our Benefactors

This is a photo of Agnieszka and Trevor, without whom the Liger Learning Center would be just another strip of farmland (very good for fruit and vegetables, as we can so readily see from the farm next door), but not the locus of an original educational experiment. The suspense had been building since the moment we arrived- Who were these people and what were they like? Would they approve of what they saw after three years of planning and building? Would they be authoritative and distant? Casual and supportive? My students short skits were simply that- story ideas conceived and fleshed out by 8-10 year olds, but part of me couldn't help feeling that more was riding on this than a novel brief entertainment. Trevor is a phenomenally hard working businessman, and his values are based on a lifetime experience of risk taking and self responsibility. Trevor came from a small town and from next to nothing. At one point in his youth, his mother relied on government assistance for the family's survival. He left a high paying, comfortable job to fly out on his own, and succeeded brilliantly. Agnieszka is an integral part of his success. Trevor is an experienced math and financial whiz - who know what his conception of education might include?
Our director, Robert, thankfully, is an educational whiz, and they listened when Robert advocated for a professionally trained and paid staff rather than a volunteer model; they listened when Robert advocated for a seasoned art teacher and weaving arts explicitly and liberally through the curriculum. This could have told us everything we needed to know about this incredible couple- that this project was not about their egos, but about making an authentic difference in the lives of children. Still, these are not squishy do-gooders - we have to provide evidence and results - and neither are they going to be distant donors, thinking about LLC once a year at tax time. They have an adoptive Cambodian son and they are already planning a longer visit to the school in February with both son and daughter.
What impressed me personally about both Trevor and Agnieszka was the clear hand of respect and friendship they extended to each and every person here- be it a student, a farm hand, a teacher assistant,  or yours truly. 

While they were here, we put together a time capsule of who we are and what is now, to be opened when this group of students sends its first graduates off to university.

In spite of the packed nature of their visit, they made time to talk with each and every teacher one on one, and on the final day, they added a sixth value to our existing five - Appreciation. He gave a wonderfully moving speech about how this sense of  'counting our blessings' is as crucial to the Liger Spirit as Determination or Ingenuity or the others.
And what a blessing they have provided us all with their generosity- not just 50 disadvantaged children, but the teaching, administrative, and support staff- to be able to go to work each day and know you are part of hope, part of a better future.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Drama Dress Rehearsal

The dress rehearsals all took place on Friday, two days before the arrival of our benefactors. Out of the ten plays, I decided that seven were ready for 'prime time'. This meant that one youngster asked about his play approximately 1,000,000 times..."When will MYplay be going on?"...
That's because we had told them that the good news was that ALL the plays were successful and all were chosen. 
The problem with futzing on the truth to spare children's feelings of failure is, as with any less than truth, it simply pushes heartache down the road a bit. 

Anyway, we focused on polishing the seven, first inside the classroom, and then out in our 'performance' space - which is just a flat open deck, prone to gusty winds and partly open to afternoon showers. I have already started dreaming of raising funds for a proper small amphitheater somewhere on the grounds, and talking with Jo the art gal about collaborating on its design. 

Below are some photos of Friday:

This is practicing in the classroom early in the week:

And this is with make up and costumes on the deck where we performed. One plays a grandmother who forbids her son to play with a 'bad' girl.  In some ways she really has the air of a serene old woman.

This is the one of two animal plays with a bee, a bird, and a hunter.
How is that for a bird costume?
And this is from the very first skit put on, about a Longan fruit seller who is short changed some money. Mostly I think they were excited about eating the fruit post performance...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Drama Part 2

Once the assignment of writing a skit based on the Liger values was conveyed,  more or less, and the students wrote up and presented their story "proposals", Reksmey and I sifted through them, looking for workable skits. We sought variety and creativity- some animal skits, some serious dramas- and we also considered which students we felt could successfully guide the others and see the project through with minimal adult support. Our choices ended with some bruised egos and a few complaints- they certainly are all 'bright', but they are also certainly still 'kids'- and a highly ambitious lot for the most part (I'll delve into some interesting exceptions at a later date). Now all we had to do was write 11 scripts, rehearse them, and produce them in 7 school days! We began with a talk and a handout Reksmey translated about scenes and action and character motivation. Here is a video of the students working on fleshing out the scripts and writing scenes:


This was perhaps the most challenging part-a few groups lost energy and motivation, and a few altered their story beyond recognition, so that Reksmey and I would ask after the rehearsal- What happened to the scene where they are all XYZ?  and it would turn out they had cut it entirely, rendering the story more or less unintelligible.

I am light years away from understanding the Khmer sensibility on any deep level, and that goes for the sense of humor and story and suspense. I spent most of the week just trying to get- a beginning, middle, and end to each story- and a sense that the character (s) had faced some obstacle or had some experience and been changed by it.

Overall the kids were fabulous at taking advice and listened with open hearts. Two boys working together at melding their two ideas got together and announced that they had "quit". I took some responsibility but told them that in fact their play was about the Liger Value of "Determination" and they were indeed NOT going to quit. This meant Choua had to come in during the lunch break and write for two hours, which he did without complaint.

Now it was outside and to the markets to collect costume materials and props. The students were getting very excited by this point and dragged in half the dead branches and leaves to recreate a "jungle" for one play. We went to the building guys for bits of wire and old straws and tools. The cushions from the lounge served as 4 "homes" in three different plays.

I managed to get a  $50 budget for head bands and wigs and face paint, and that meant I had to kick in another $20 of my own because for some reason it was very important for the actors in one play to have real fruit for their market scene (which they all devoured post play and may have been the diabolical plan all along).

 It was suddenly Friday and time for our only dress rehearsal.