Real learning

Ever year I walk away from my last class with my year 11 Information Technology class thinking “well, I can’t possibly top that!”

Every year my new class amazes, educates and inspires me.

This year we had an incredible opportunity to work with Polperro Dolphin Swims to analyse the vast amounts of data they have accumulated over their years working with the dolphins and seals in Port Phillip Bay. This data consists of a page of handwritten notes for every trip the Polperro has been out on for the last 8 years. Notes about weather conditions, dolphin numbers, locations and behaviours. That’s a lot of pages, and a lot of notes. The opportunity to work with this data was thrilling for several reasons.

Firstly the students were able to meet and work with the crew of Polperro, headed by the incomparable Judy Muir. Judy is a fiercely passionate conservationist who works tirelessly for the protection and well-being of the bay and the animals who make it their home. Judy and Marine Biologist Jess Beckham came to talk with my class early in the year about the data and the reasons it is important to record and understand it, and my students were so inspired that some of them started working on their projects months before I even set the assignment.

Secondly the students were able to work with a wealth of data that has never been analysed. Some of them wrote programs to capture and process the data in real time, to make the data more accurate and avoid having to laboriously digitise handwritten data in the future. Some wrote programs to create maps of where the dolphins have been seen and how often. Some wrote programs to graph different elements of the data against each other to look for relationships – for example temperature of the water and how it affects dolphin activity levels.

Essentially what we did was describe the situation and some of the conservation issues to the students, give them access to the data, and then get out of their way. They framed their own questions, then designed their own projects from the ground up to explore their questions and search for answers.

This is genuine scientific research – starting with data and finding patterns and relationships within it. How many kids get to do that in year 11?  The work has real world implications for the creation of sanctuaries where dolphins are most likely to congregate, for rules about the operation of jet-skis (which are frequently fatal to dolphins and need to be kept out of their habitat as an absolute priority), and for a host of other conservation uses. At least 4 of the students are so motivated that they are planning to continue working on their programs, even now that the subject is officially finished.

Like any research there were setbacks, drawbacks, positive results and negative ones, and through it all my students continued to amaze me with their enthusiasm, their motivation and their incredible talent. Each and every one of them ended the year miles ahead of where they began, and I am overwhelmingly proud of them.

Today we went out on Polperro. With exceptional generosity Judy and her crew gifted the class a dolphin and seal watching cruise in appreciation of all the work we have done. It was a fantastic way to end the year together, and the dolphins showed their own appreciation by toying with us – appearing a bit beyond the boat, then disappearing beneath the waves, then popping up right on our bow wave, so close we could almost touch them. It fascinated me that these magnificent creatures were obviously choosing to hang out with us – they are so sleek and fast they could have slipped beneath the waves and eluded us at any time, but they kept popping up to play with us a little more. It was an amazing privilege.

The value to my students of contact with people like the Polperro crew is beyond price. Troy, Ben and Judy ran our tour today. They shared their expertise and their enthusiasm with us, and they made the whole project even more real for the students. They were fabulously enthusiastic and appreciative of everything the kids have achieved. Judy told the class today that they give her hope for the future – that their actions can change the world (and already have). She is so right. These kids hold the future in their hands, and they are not afraid to give it everything they’ve got.

I am incredibly lucky to be a part of it.



The Matrix is here

Today I was standing in a checkout queue at a large department store. The queue seemed miles long, so I was trying to use that time for a little mindfulness – becoming aware of the passage of air across my skin, the feeling of my feet in my sandals, and the breath going in and out of my body. Before long I became aware that I was, in fact, aware of none of these things, but mindlessly absorbed in the blaring continuous roll of ads leaping out of the television screens all around us.

I took a deep breath, tore my gaze away from the screens and tried to refocus, but I kept getting dragged back to the ads again. So I tried to make eye contact with my fellow inmat^ I mean queuers, but they were all ensnared by the screen too. There seemed to be no escape from the cleverly manipulative power of those huge plasma screens.

And here I am, on a gloriously sunny day, sitting my my darkened study ensnared by yet another screen. The seductive liquid crystal glow of my laptop holds me trapped, from actively working through to mindlessly browsing the endless web.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m running on ice
Paying the price too long
Kind of get the feeling that I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

Billy Joel – Running on Ice

Bob Brown recently referred to technology as “some manufactured reality which has taken the human brain and is racing off with it in captivity.” In the same speech he told a story of being on a flight over some breathtaking view of natural beauty, with his blind open so that he could see it. Every other blind in the cabin was down, and every other passenger was transfixed by their in-flight entertainment – oblivious to the out-flight entertainment right outside the windows. In short order Bob was asked to please put his blind down, as it meant people couldn’t see their screens properly. Oh! The horror of not being able to see your screen!

This manufactured reality is awfully compelling. When I am angry, sad or frustrated, or when I am wildly happy about something, or just have a quirky thought, I have a strong urge to post about it on facebook, where I will likely receive a lot of validation from what is, in general, a lovely and supportive community. But I used to call someone. Or visit someone. Or, gosh, wait an hour or two for my gratification. And when I am done posting, I don’t get up and walk away, to play with the kids or work in the garden. I check the weather page, and the ABC news site, and a few blogs I follow. I browse twitter, and before I know it the internet has eaten my day again.

I know it. I hate it. I fight against it. Yet every day I am complicit in allowing the internet to consume my soul.

The trouble is that it’s not just the laptop in the study any more. It’s not even just my phone. The screens are everywhere – in the supermarket and the department stores. At the petrol pump and on the public transport. In the cafes and the restaurants – now this I find truly bizarre! Why, at a cafe, would I want my attention distracted from my companions, my food and my chai latte by a screen that is carefully calculated to imprison my attention and hold it captive forever?

They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me

Billy Joel – Running on Ice

All the tiny gaps in your day that used to be filled by quiet contemplation and a little spontaneous breathing are now being sold for profit. And the profit is not yours or mine.

Those pauses for breath are as important for re-ravelling our souls as sleep. They are moments when we can soothe the ragged edges that stress carves out of us, and pause to regroup for the next frenzied onslaught of life. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to build those spaces back into our lives. Which is why I’m going outside to water my veggies.

How awesome are you?

If I walked up to you and said “how awesome are you?” what would you say?

If your boss came and said “tell me about the good stuff you have done recently?” how would you react?

If a friend said “you’re so talented!” what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about praise lately. Last week I was at a conference where I was unexpectedly publicly praised – I received an award and the presenter spent some time talking about how awesome my work is. It was quite overwhelming. And yet I know the project we were talking about is awesome. I am deeply proud of it. I do talk about it, at length, to my friends – generally raving about the students involved, the organisation who are partnering us in the enterprise, and the results we are getting. What I don’t usually mention is that it wouldn’t have happened without me. I saw the opportunity. I made the contacts. I built it into my course. I worked really hard to make it happen.

Even as I type that I am squirming uncomfortably. The project also wouldn’t have happened without the amazing students, the incredible partner organisation, and indeed the opportunity provided by the school to extend and develop the curriculum. It’s easy for me to praise my students, my partners, my colleagues, my school, and my friends. I can praise just about anyone (although I draw the line at Tony Abbott). But praising myself makes me squirm. Talking about my own achievements is something I am hugely uncomfortable with.

But why should I be?

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

It seems to me that the world belongs to people who can self-promote. People who shout to the world about all the awesome things they are doing – even when those things aren’t all that awesome, or maybe are not even theirs to shout about. It’s the shouting that counts. It’s the image you present that is important, far and above the substance of what you actually do.

It’s very difficult to praise yourself. We tend to see people who sing their own praises as braggarts, show-offs and generally obnoxious people. Yet I think it’s important to be able to say “I did this, and I did it really well” or “this would not have happened without me” or “this is really important, and I made it happen” or simply “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud of it.” There is a lot of space worth exploring between over-the-top self-promotion and not being proud of what you do, yet it is somehow more socially acceptable to fall on the extremely negative side of that space.

I am very proud of what I do, and I do lots of it really well. Not all of it – the day I start saying I know everything there is to know about teaching will be one day after I should have retired. There is always so much more to learn. But everyone has things they can be proud of, and few of us are willing or able to articulate them.

I think that’s a shame. It’s all very well to be modest and self-deprecating, but I believe that for our own self-esteem, and for the benefit of all the young people who are watching us and learning from us, we owe it to the world to stand up and say “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud.”

So ask yourself tonight: How awesome are you?

We have to look to the future

“We have to look to the future. Either that or we say there is no future. I don’t see that as an option.”

Neil Blake. Baykeeper. Port Phillip Ecocentre.

My 10 year old, Zoe, worries. She worries about climate change. She worries about the environment. She feels helpless. She wants to pick up every piece of rubbish she sees (which can make for very slow car trips). She wants to care for every injured animal. To rehabilitate every patch of trashed bushland. To clean every waterway. I know exactly how she feels.

Earlier this year Zoe got the opportunity to be part of a documentary about plastics in Port Phillip Bay. Called Baykeepers, the film is about the impact of plastics in our waterways, and the people working to stop it.

Every piece of plastic that gets dropped in Melbourne, whether it’s in the street, the playground, your backyard, or your school, is likely to end up in Port Phillip Bay. And plastics are forever.

This is the tragic irony of this Plastic Age we live in. We create plastics to throw away after mere minutes of use – think soft drink bottles, coffee cups, or the wrapping on your sandwich – and then they last forever in the environment. Oh, sure, they break down, but only into smaller pieces of plastic. They never actually go away.

Do you know what happens to those tiny bits of plastic? They get washed into the sea where they collect toxins. Then, being the size of fish eggs, algae and other tasty things, they get eaten by fish and other sea creatures. The plastics and the toxins get concentrated up the food chain, and end up in your plate of fish and chips, or your smoked salmon pizza.

And now we are introducing micro-spheres of plastic into the environment in, of all things, makeup. Exfoliating scrubs are made of tiny beads of plastic, intended to be washed down the drain. We are making plastic specifically intended to wind up in our waterways.

It’s enough to make you despair, just like Zoe. Fortunately tonight we saw the premiere of Baykeepers. It was the first time we had seen the whole thing put together, and understood the story that the film’s director and producer, Michael J. Lutman, was planning to tell. Baykeepers isn’t just a story about plastic. It’s the tale of people who care about our impact on the earth. It’s a story of enlightenment. Of people beginning to recognize our place in the environment, and our responsibility for it.

It’s a tale worth telling, retelling, and telling over again. It’s about waking up to what we’re doing. It’s about telling your friends, your neighbours, and your colleagues. It’s about taking that lightning flash of understanding – of that devastating image of waterways choked with rubbish – and sharing it with anyone who will listen.

Zoe was very lucky to be a part of this powerful and compelling film, but we all have a role to play in the story of the earth. We all have people around us who don’t quite get it. Who haven’t yet realised what it actually means to drop an empty soft drink bottle, or let go of a helium balloon on a plastic ribbon. Who bring their lunches to work in plastic wrap instead of reusable containers. Who casually toss their chip packets aside.

It’s not enough to change our own behaviour. We have to be the catalysts for changing the behaviour of others.

We have to look to the future. To make sure there is one.