Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My favourite space!

Doug Belshaw has shared a composite picture of his attic-office - a space he is sorry to be losing as he and his family move house. He has challenged his readers to share photos of their favourite study spaces.

Of course, I'm going to break the rules.

We have recently moved into a new house. Much bigger than our previous house, with all sorts of extra spaces. While they don't qualify as study spaces, the fact that Doug's shoeless feet are clearly visible in his picture gave me to think that his study space is also a relax space. I thought I'd reciprocate with pictures of my favourite relax spaces in our new house.

First off, there's the conservatory. Large, airy, comfortable. We often retire to this area with coffee after a meal. It makes a great chill out zone. Because of the way it has been constructed, including the brick wall you can see on the left, the room is pretty warm. But it also has another potential use: there's a completely open walk-through from the dining-room, so we could add an extra table and have a sitdown meal for 20 people. I can't wait to have a go at that!

But our favourite space has got to be (like Doug's) the attic. We have decided to use it as a family room. The TV is up there, together with the DVD player (not the XBox - that's elsewhere in the house!). There is a bookshelf full of reference books for resolving family disputes, and checking up on "facts" spouted on the telly without having to power up a computer (although, this is a distinct option as well). The ironing board is also up there, because I can iron for hours on end, but only if there's something to watch on the telly.

Most people are horrified when I describe the colour scheme in the room. We LOVE it! It leaves the lounge free to entertain guests, while ensuring that the kids have somewhere to go when the adult conversation gets boring, and they don't have to compete for volume with the talk. This is our family bolt-hole, and we spend hours up there. What it needs is a few brightly coloured bean bags. I found some in South Africa, but transporting them over by plane would have been tricky. While beanbags are plentiful in the UK, they tend to be in browns and beiges which, while beautiful, are not what we're after!

So - sorry that it's not a study space, Doug, but they are both spaces I treasure beyond my study space. Anyone interested in seeing more pictures of our new house can find them in my Flickr account.

Why do I blog?

This is a topic I've visited to various degrees before, but a recent post from Tony Karrer got me thinking that it might be time to take another look at why I blog. As ever, it is in the comments on Tony's post that many gems lie - don't miss those... and I don't just say that because I am one of the commenters ;o)

This blog is not my attempt to win the wider world over to my own particular brand of (ahem) wisdom. It is instead the place where I hang my ideas, experiences and thoughts out in the wind and stand back from them to see whether they have value, whether they stand up to scrutiny. I like the fact that others stop by and share their views. I like the fact that I can do the same with their blogs. I treaure the relationships that have come out of my time as a blogger.

When I read some of my older posts, I find that I have moved on from those views and ideas - sometimes to such an extent that I cringe to read those words which are permanently linked to my name. And this has been largely due to encountering the thoughts and views of fellow bloggers who have been brave enough to send their fledgling ideas out into the world.

I know that there are those who consider blogging to be an egotistical pastime. Many of my colleagues feel this way. However, in an attempt to share how untrue this is, let me relate something totally left field:

My younger son is a wrestler. Sadly, not the noble art of Greco-Roman wrestling, but its showboating relative to be found in the world of WWE. He is still fairly new at it, and is scheduled for his first bout at the end of May. Excitedly, he told me that I would finally get the chance to see him compete.

It took every ounce of parenting skill I have (which is probably not a lot) to explain why I would not be there.

I have been in the crowd for every single thing my kids have done. Every stage performance, every chess tournament, every sporting endeavour. I have screamed myself hoarse. I have applauded until my hands stung. I have tried endlessly (and totally without success) to whistle through my teeth. I have "Woohoo-ed" more loudly than the rest of the crowd put together. I have mopped up the bitter tears of the loser and coached the art of winning with grace and losing with dignity. I have always made sure that my boys know that, win or lose, there is someone in that crowd who is rooting for them and doesn't care who knows it. I have no shame!

And yet, I am opting out on this occasion. How could I?

Let me explain that there is no way I could sit in the crowd and watch someone hit my son, especially since, as a "face", my son would be coming up against a "heel". I know it's all fake (although you didn't hear that from me!), but sometimes the wrestlers really get hurt. Also, part of the idea is to "sell" - to pretend to be in enormous pain. Would I be able to tell when he was selling and when he was genuinely in pain? I have worked hard on my son. He is the product of fourteen and a half years of a labour of love. He is "flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone". and I didn't do all that so that I could sit by and let some "baddie" to try to smack the living daylights out of him! Bear in mind that this is the son who has been the victim of much bullying in his life, which I have shared before on this blog.

Fortunately, he understood. His Dad and elder brother (hardier souls than I) have agreed to make a valiant effort to make as much noise as I would normally be expected to make (they are unlikely to succeed - there are only two of them, after all).

So, what is the point of that saccharine sweet revelation? Simply this. I am not detached from my thoughts and views. The line between what I think and what I feel is not very clearly drawn I am a naive soul and I invest myself in everything I say and do and think. There have been times when I have shared my theories in this blog or in comments on others' posts, only to see them mercilessly demolished by someone else. Sometimes, when the debate is purely academic or intellectual, that's no big deal, but there other times when I react in much the same vein (although to a lesser degree) as I would were I to see my son taking a beating in the ring.

Blogging can be a humbling experience. It can even be humiliating. But, if you make it your goal to learn as much as you can from the process rather than simply to bare your own soul, you will find that you learn more than you thought possible. Stretching and growth can also be uncomfortable, as you are forced to hold some of your less well formed notions up to the light and recognise that they are unfounded or inaccurate. But, at the end of the day, it must be a worthwhile experience... otherwise we wouldn't keep it up, would we?

Friday, April 25, 2008

No guarantees!

While I was on holiday in South Africa, I spent a week in East London, where I spent many years of my childhood. Many of my childhood friends are still there, most of whom I haven’t seen since my teens. On several occasions, I saw faces that I was sure I recognised, but I couldn’t be sure whether or not I really knew and if so, where from.

On one occasion, however, there was no doubt in my mind, and it caused me enormous grief.

My husband and I had taken our boys down to the glorious Nahoon Beach for a swim and, as we parked the car, I noticed a hobo rooting in the grass next to the parking lot. Even from the side, I knew who he was. There was no speculation this time. Not only did I know that I knew him. I knew how I knew him and what his name was. He was in my class in std 4 (grade 6) and his name was Luke Delport (not his real name). He was completely unaware of my presence as I stood staring at him. Totally engrossed in whatever it was he was trying to dig out of the soil, he was blissfully unaware of the quandary in which I found myself.

He was filthy and dressed very warmly for such a sunny day. His clothes were as filthy as he was and in poor repair.

Should I go up and say hello? Would I be able to speak without crying? Would he know who I was? Did he even have a clear idea of who he was?

Impatient to get to the beach, my family was urging me to get a move on. Torn between reluctance and relief, I dragged myself away, just as Luke began to mime playing basketball.

Like a dog with a bone, I worried at the matter all the time we were on the beach. What had become of the 11 year old boy I used to know? Scenting the potential for a story full of pathos, my boys asked me questions about him, hoping to hear about a brilliant scholar, outstanding sportsman, popular child. Luke was none of these things. He was a poor performer academically, a fair tennis player, often in trouble with the teachers, not particularly well-liked by other kids and with nothing to make for a suitably tragic hero.

Nevertheless, he had been a little boy, like any other. With his whole life ahead of him. And here he was, ruined and broken and digging in the grass for some imaginary treasure.

I looked at my boys, at the other children on the beach and realised that none of them come with a guarantee. There is no assurance of a bright future. No guarantee that they will remain sound of body and mind. We just have to do the best we can. Parents, teachers, community members.

When we left the beach, Luke was not there. I went home and tearfully told the story to my sister who assured me that, whoever I had seen, it was not Luke. Luke was a successful businessman, married to a trophy wife after the failure of his first marriage. He had a brace of ill-behaved children who were poor performers academically, fair tennis players, often in trouble with teachers, not particularly well-liked by other kids…

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Loading sheds, shedding loads

Apologies for the long silence. I have been on holiday in South Africa for a little over 3 weeks and decided to take the unplugged approach (for the most part). Apart from anything else, the connection speeds available to me were laughable.

I thought I'd share some of my observations about the changes in South Africa for my first post back in the saddle. Before I do, however, let me say categorically that I had the most wonderful time. That, in spite of the fact that we have no plans to return, I felt that my pulse beat in time to the rhythm of the people and the place in a way it spectacularly fails to do in the UK. I hooked up with family and friends and it was as if we had never been apart. The sun shone, the sky was blue and I felt truly alive.

That said: life is harder than it was when we left 9 years ago and when we last visited five and a half years ago. Things are wa-ay more expensive. Crime is up. Unemployment is up. Security measures on houses are even more extreme.

Much of this was largely to be expected, based on what we had learned from the news. However, there were a few surprises.

Several years ago, the national electricity supplier, Eskom, was set to be privatised. It was known at the time that the infrastructure would soon become inadequate, but the matter was not addressed, because the expectation was that this would be dealt with by the incoming powers that be. This privatisation never happened. Moreover, many of those who knew what needed to be done joined the braindrain and are now probably in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

What did happen was that power was laid on for far flung rural areas - something which had been promised for many a year, but for which the existing infrastructure was inadequate. What also happened was that the informal settlements (locally known as squatter camps) figured out how to obtain... ahem... "informal electricity" by running wires directly from the overhead mains cables (and people developed ingenious ways of stealing underground cables to melt down and sell the copper).

As a consequence, Eskom can no longer supply the country with uninterrupted power. A system of loadshedding has been introduced. In East London, where my family lives, the power is shut off every second day for two hours. In Cape Town it is one 3-hour period during the week. Some of the larger stores and/or shopping centres have generators, but many do not, so many cannot operate effectively during these periods. Loadshedding is conducted on a rolling basis across an area, so you might madly set about making up for lost time as soon as your power comes back up, only to discover that your client/supplier is now experiencing their scheduled power outage.

How this country is going to host the 2010 soccer world cup, I have no idea!

Of course, since the loadshedding is a scheduled business, any criminal with half a brain has figured out that all the sophisticated security equipment is disabled during loadshedding. This allows them a neat and predictable 2 hour window to focus their attention on houses where the electrified fences are now not electrified, the burglar alarm is disabled and the armed response units are not going to get to know about the robbery until the burglars are long gone.

Recycling and the environment
When we moved to the UK 9 years ago, we were appalled at how little recycling took place here, compared to the provision in South Africa. Nine years later, the UK has stepped up its provision immeasurably, while South Africa has withdrawn much of theirs. It broke my heart to have to throw aluminium cans and PET bottles into the rubbish bin while we were there.

Mind you, there are other ways of recycling!

Poverty being what it is, there are large numbers of what my mother calls "bin diggers" who go through the garbage bags waiting for collection, looking for items that can be recycled. Aluminium cans are transformed into ornaments, toys and fashion accessories. PET bottles are used as gardening implements. Plastic shopping bags are torn into strips and woven or crocheted into rugs and hats. My parents keep their vegetable waste for the compost heap, but potato peels apparently attract spider mites, so these go into the trash. I was roundly chastised, however, for scraping them straight off the board into the bin. They have to be put into a plastic shopping bag which is tied at the top, so that the bin diggers don't get their hands all mucky.

On garbage collection day, you can spot vast armies of women sitting under trees surrounded by bags filled with the spoils of the day's foraging. In due course, they will be collected, but they're not letting those bags out of their sight until then! Driving along the roads, you would expect to see the impact of their foraging, in the form of some sort of mess or litter. You would be wrong. These women are very careful to replace everything they don't want in the black garbage bags and then tie them closed, leaving them neatly at the end of each driveway as the refuse collectors would expect.

Sadly, this resourcefulness can do nothing to rescue the wetlands that are being drained to build developments which the infrastructure cannot possibly support. Nor can it prevent the wholesale flattening of trees for the same purpose. The environmental organisations are powerless in the face of the bribery of officials to approve this, that and the other new development and corruption of this nature looks set to rob the country of the natural beauty that brings in the vital tourist dollars, pounds and euros (related side issue: my sister-in-law has been sponsoring a group of homeless, bushdwelling children for several years. She has made several attempts to get them identity documents so that they can apply for legitimate work, but the officials have made it abundantly clear that they will only consider the applications in exchange for a hefty bribe which she is neither able to afford or countenance).

Making a difference
Need in South Africa means something very different from need in the UK. Needy children there are likely to live in a home with no indoor plumbing or electricity. They may share a single-roomed dwelling with 6 or 7 others. They may well be physically and sexually abused. They are likely to have TB and/or be HIV positive. The food they receive at school is all the food they get. Small actions can make a fundamental difference. Which is why I am so proud of my many friends who are involved up to their eyeballs in this project (the woman in the blue top in the photo to the right of the logo on the home page is my best friend, Lynda from whom I parted with bitter tears on Monday).

The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling will stop or in what place my touch will be felt.

Karin Colson

This has been a long post. If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with me!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

LCB's big question for April

This month's big question is:

What would you like to do better as a Learning Professional?

The answer is simple: I would like to have better technical nous.

My html is (to use a very English term) pants! I am useless with architecture. I can barely sort out my blog template using the standard ones on offer, let alone create my own customised version. I am clueless about widgets. I know precious little about SCORM, LMSs CMSs.

I come up with all these grandiose ideas of what I want to do when it comes to designing a learning resource, and then someone asks me the dreaded question: "How do you plan to achieve that?" Oh crud, I don't know - I'm just going to wave my arms and talk loudly and the production pixies will weave their magic.

I hate being ignorant. I hate the limitations it places on me. I hate the fact that I run the risk of making promises I can't deliver on because I've overlooked some fundamental factor or other.