16 Countries, 12 Schools and 1 iPad: A Journey Down a New Path

After ten months of traveling, I have returned home to New York City and Baltimore to visit with family and friends, visit with schools with whom I’ve skyped during my travels, and get a slew of medical check-ups before heading back to Cambodia in October. I’m not going back to my Digital Thinking teaching and Technology Curriculum Coordinator position at Garrison Forest School. Instead, I’m going to continue on the road as a Global Educational Correspondent for Garrison Forest School while continuing to teach underserved students and communities in SE Asia and Africa how to harness digital media as a way to join the Global Discussion. I’ve left a steady paycheck, my house, a community of friends I love, and the comfort of the known. Yeah, there are moments I awake in the night and think, what AM I DOING?!… 

After 8 years as a teacher at Garrison Forest School for Girls in Owings Mills, Maryland, I proposed a sabbatical that would allow me to travel for one year, bringing technology education and mobile video production on an iPad2 to underserved communities. I had worked for GFS as an English teacher for 3 years, and then transitioned into the Technology Coordinator (training teachers to implement technology into their curriculum), developed 21st curriculum for middle school girls, and taught Digital Thinking to grades 6 & 7. The school was keen to enhance it’s Global Education for the students, and granted me a leave of absence to travel as the Global Educational Correspondent in order to connect our students and teachers with schools around the world.

I began my travels in late September in Moscow, Russia where I connected with a UNESCO representative who arranged a visit to School 1329, a K-12 school. Sixth grade teachers there were blogging and were eager to connect with our students. A blog exchange of videos occurred between the middle schools. A personal highlight for me was researching and taking a Trans-Siberian train across Russia and into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. There, the UNESCO representative again introduced me to a school in the city. It was there that I led the first Skyping session between Mongolian and US students. The Mongolian citizens were extremely eager to debunk the stereotype that all Mongolians are nomadic, stuck in a time long ago. They want to be known as a modern, thriving city:

While meeting with this class, a teacher from a less affluent school arrived: she had traveled over an hour to come meet me so that I would come to their school. The next day I went to her school and spoke to her 9th grade English class. I learned that a few of them knew of Facebook, a few more had email (but not all), and none of them knew about blogging or Twitter. I worked that afternoon with the teacher to set up a blog for her English class. Within a few hours, she had created and learned how to use Blogger. Unfortunately, I had a flight the next day to Cambodia, but still, this experience taught me several things:

1. Access to computers is NOT the primary issue facing underserved communities in their pursuit to join the 21st century’s global discussion. This less affluent school had an entire lab of computers, donated by a foreign government. But there had been no training for faculty. And no oversight of the equipment. So, no one was using it, except for a few self-taught teachers and students.

2. Teaching blogging is easy.

3. Skyping sessions were not only possibly, but greatly wanted by both the Mongolian and US students/ teachers… Curiosity of other cultures is intense. We could have Skyped all night!

4. There were Mongolian voices that want to be heard; they only need an avenue.

In October, I traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I connected with the Ponheary Ly Foundation. President Lori Carlson took me to tour the Chey School (also referred to as the Tchey School) where they had begun a computer education program with XO One Laptop Per Child computers in 2008. I was AMAZED to see these machines in action. The PLF had sent a Cambodian teacher for training, and he had built the computer program to eventually include Dell Desktops. When I visited for the first time in October 2011, they were running “advanced computer” classes that taught MS Office.

For the remainder of October and November, I traveled as a tourist in Cambodia and Vietnam. Although it was fun to ride the train, take cooking classes, and explore the mountains by motorbike, I always wanted to visit schools. It just wasn’t fulfilling to me to be simply traveling.

 

In December, I returned to Cambodia in order to volunteer as an English teacher at the Bamboo Shoots City dorm for girls who traveled from the countryside to attend Angkor High School. It was an experience that began to change the course of my travels and, I suppose, my life path. After a day of work and classes that began at 5AM, these students would return to the dorm at 6:30 to begin an hour and 1/2 English class with me. I used my iPhone, iPad2 and MacBook Air to differentiate instruction for the 24 students (they had incredibly diverse abilities). The girls used the SonicPics app on the iPhone & iPad2 to create stories using Transitional words. These girls had NO computer training (although there was an entire computer lab with 20 machines that was not being used – again, computers donated by a foreign organization, but no instruction or training provided).

At the end of the month, the most important work of my travels happened: Lori asked me to go to the Chey School and lead a digital photography workshop to prepare the students for an upcoming project. I took my iPad2, digital point & shoot cameras, and conducted what was to become the first “Tell Your Own Story” mobile video production project. The students were eager and obedient, but when I asked them what they wanted to say to the world, they had NO IDEAS. It later became apparent to me that they didn’t know about the internet, didn’t really know the rest of the world existed, and definitely didn’t believe that the rest of the world, if it did exist, cared what they had to say. They had never heard of YouTube, but I described it to them and asked if they wanted their videos to be published there. They said, “yes”.

One of the videos, “Water Wells in my Village” by three of the boys convinced me of the power of this type of project: in the video, 17 year old Cambodian Soy Sen explained that a foreign organization had come and put in 20 wells for his village. But now ½ of them were broken, and the 500 people in his village didn’t have enough water. He explained that he had tried to fix the wells, but he and his friends didn’t know how and they didn’t have the tools. They wanted someone to come teach them. I posted the video to YouTube on Dec. 30th and then entered into a 10 day silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist Monestary in Thailand. By the time I emerged, the video had been seen by an American organization, Blue Heart Charity, that contacted the PLF, offering to come teach Soy Sen and his friends how to fix the wells. He also offered to bring and leave the tools.

In January, After the retreat, I needed to make a border run to renew my visa, and found myself in Penang, Malaysia where I chanced to stay in a hotel just across the street from St. Xavier Institute. Hearing their marching band rehearse one day, I was drawn inside their gates, where I spent a few days with their student-led marching band and their student web team. We created videos of the band, kicked off the idea of a Global Skype Band Concert and during a 1/2 day “Tell Your Own Story” workshop, the web students wrote, directed, edited and produced their first video: “Charity Week at St. Xavier Institute”.

In February, I decided to return to Cambodia for another 3 weeks. This time, I took the train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border (one of the best train experiences!) Back in Cambodia, with the PLF-sponsored students, is where the magic began: the students were 100% changed: they now believed that the world cared about them. That if they spoke, the world would listen. They advanced their skills, incorporating interview skills and subtitling Khmer interviews into English, and created more videos.

This time, Lori Carlson and I talked about the future for these students: 50% of the population is under the age of 18. Although many are receiving education through foreign NGOs and organizations, their future employment opportunities are bleak: tourism hotel/ restaurant work, construction labor, textile factory work, and farming. None of these jobs can raise them out of poverty. But, at the same time, Eugene Nelson from Blue Heart Charity contacted the PLF to commission a video of his work in Cambodia. Other organizations were contacting the PLF with similar requests. What if these students and more like them could get in on the exploding Information, Communication and Technology sector that is booming in SE Asia? What if they could be taught digital media production and entrepreneurial business skills and open their own production studio? I agreed to return in April.

In March, I traveled to northern Thailand where I conducted another ‘Tell Your Own Story’ workshop with young Burmese refugees in Mae Sot through the Spanish NGO Colabora Birmania. They had never touched a computer: I showed them the videos from Cambodia. They LOVED to see people like them in videos. I asked if they thought they could make videos like that: they replied, “No”. Within a week, the three teams had made 3 outstanding videos: “A Day in the Life of Wine”, “Proud to Be Burmese” and a video that explored photography and making music.

The following week, I was invited to the Mae La Oon refugee camp, home to 16,000 refugees from Karen State, Myanmar. In a place that only had diesel-generator powered electricity for 3 hours a day, participants were able to create 2 powerful videos: “A Day in the Life of Gay Doh Paw”  and “Food Rations” about the affect of rising global food prices on their lives and the reduced amount of food rations they can receive. Again, these participants had either zero or very limited computer experienced. This workshop impressed upon me the effect of the iPad’s long battery life on giving individuals access to telling their stories. It also impressed upon me the power of mobile technologies to reach a place 6 hours from the nearest town. I had to wait until I left the camp and returned to a place with internet connection in order to upload the videos to YouTube.

In April, I returned to Siem Reap, Cambodia: we introduced the idea of a media production studio to the students. I asked them if they really wanted to proceed with this: one boy, very quiet, replied for the whole class, “Teacher, you have showed us the future, none of us want to go backwards. We all want to go forward.” They began work on commissioned videos and were paid $20 each for their work. Three boys also began a video submission for a $10,000 GoodTube grant in order to fund their media studio:

I also taught them how to blog using WordPress: their first blogposts were hosted on the PLF website.

In May, I traveled into Myanmar to conduct a ‘Tell Your Own Story Project’ workshop with HIV/AIDS positive individuals in Kachin State where there was fighting. I worked through the Catholic organizations MCHANetwork and Irish Non-Profit The Hope Center. The participants chose to make videos to A) Combat the stereotypes of people with HIV/AIDS (Myanmar has very little infrastructure to test, report and address the exploding problem) and B) inform others about the center where they receive care, and C) to raise awareness about prevention. Again, the participants had no prior computer or camera experience. They had never heard of YouTube and most did not know anything about the internet.

In June, I traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia to meet with a friend of mine who was in SE Asia for her job with Apple Computers. We met up with Jay Cody, Strategy Implementation Advisor for USAID, who, over one of the best dinners I’ve ever had, told us about the Sinarmas World Academy where headmasater John McBryde is embracing iBook authoring as a way for students and teachers to create textbooks in Chinese and local languages. I was floored by the strategic use of simple and free technology to create meaningful, culturally relevant educational resources.  As Jim and I barraged my friend with praise for the iPad, she just smiled, and finally replied: “Look, Apple makes 5 products: that’s it. We make them. What makes them so remarkable is what everyone out there is doing with them.”

And, it’s so true. All it really takes is a simple device, a willingness to get out there and a desire to share our knowledge. Which, I suppose, is what I’m doing. I’m hooked, and I’m off… for another year.