Purifiers, fiber-optics lines and masks. Welcome back to school!

I was as excited to be back in school as students were, last week. Online, of course. There’s something about a new school year that lifts our spirits, and simultaneously releases those abdominal butterflies. As I stepped out the car in park, strapped on my mask, and grabbed my satchel, I could feel this new normal creep up on me, and broke out into a grin – which no one notices now.

Distance learning is something we must get our arms around, like it or not. I’ve conducted webinars, and workshops online, but this is a whole new animal. (I date myself – in 2010, I taught a series of online classes that included blogging. Well!)

Behind checkered, floral and surgical masks, we go about our business, but it’s a business in a whole new dimension. Lesson plans need to get turned into material that delivered through a Google Classroom platform. These must be ‘chunked,’ linked and  annotated for a student doing it in small time slots, with slow WiFi, on a small screen. Video and audio recordings must be edited and uploaded –not to mention scheduling these moving parts in advance, with due dates and rubrics.

Tech questions arise and get solved on the fly by my colleagues: Could videos be cropped in Screencastify? Is there enough storage capacity on the drive? Why doesn’t PowerPoint let me use audio narration in a Microsoft 365 version? Check this neat way to turn a Google form into a quiz  (and have it grade the responses as well!) These and other issues must be figured out before dozens of Google Meets light up the building.

The week before we began, maintenance crew were crawling through the ceiling adding more lines of fiber optic lines  to support our data-hungry re-launch of distance learning.  We picked up our cameras to get up to speed with video conferencing.  With Bitmojis and bottles of sanitizer we took our positions and opened for business.

Three weeks of it, and still having many aha moments, this new normal is anything but. But as the students log into my ‘Office Hours,’ I am beginning to relax and enjoy being a teacher. I used to say that if I continue to do what I’ve always done each year, the students won’t be learning much. All of us – me and you and that dog named Boo — have collectively hit the reboot button. These lessons will last us a lifetime!

Tired of Zoom? Small schools suddenly seem attractive

So what’s the Facebook-fueled fad about ‘pandemic pods‘ all about? As with many fads, it’s something that’s been around for more than a century. Since 1906, to be exact.

And the model? A small house –a casa. Basically a ‘house of children’ or ‘Casa dei Bambini.’ That was, of course, the first successful hands-on school begun by Maria Montessori. If Facebook had been around, someone would have called these nano-schools, or a ‘practical life pods.’ Maria Montessori didn’t need likes. If she had followers, they included poor  and working-class parents with challenged kids. Oh, and there were folks like Alexander Graham Bell, an early promoter of her method when it came the America.

This prolonged pandemic, and the need to isolate ourselves has thrown a large curve ball at us parents, business owners and most importantly, children. Suddenly the large ‘campuses’ with sometimes 3000 students are frightening. The home-school model or the Montessori ‘house’ clearly addresses many of the concerns parents have. Not the masks or no-masks, or 6-foot-rule question. But questions and concerns such as:

  • What’s the alternative to sticking my child in front of an iPad?
  • My child needs to be outdoors as much as academics. More trees than apps!
  • Social media is killing socialization. I need a school that is ‘offline’ for eight hours of the day.

As schools get ready to make the large-school experience more engaging, and personal, more of these models will crop up. Maria Montessori would be pleased. Children need a safe place to learn, exchange ideas and socialize not something akin to an office space, where everyone’s glued to a screen.

Thoughts on wrestling with ‘hybrid’ learning models as schools reopen

Photograph, courtesy Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com

The question on everyone’s mind is not, “When will school reopen,” but how.  It’s been on our minds, nagging us like crazy no sooner we closed for summer this May.  My wife and I being teachers, have different models and school environments. Hers is a Montessori – Li’l Sprouts. Mine is a classical academy, Benjamin Franklin High School.

Should her students wear masks? And social distancing two-and three-year olds? Hmmm. She has decided to wear a face shield when not donning a mask. My students will have to learn new ways to conduct themselves, from the simple things like sharing pencils and keyboards, to what to do or not during recess.

The hybrid model is something we have experimented with from March through May with mixed results. Students love computers, but aren’t exactly thrilled about being ‘instructed’ through them.  (She conducts Zoom sessions, I’ve been using Google Meet.) But having said that, we educators have to adapt to the times and be part of the learning. I love the challenge, however. I’ve been spending much of these quarantined months experimenting with platforms and lessons, while not hanging out at a coffee shop with a mask. Toggling  between face-to-face and online technologies: Screen-Castomatic, Explain Everything;  Jamboard, and Google Classroom.

Remember that ‘PLC’ buzz acronym (for ‘professional learning communities’) that got thrown around a lot five years ago? Now’s the time for us to show that we can be a true learning community. Not just with our peers, but with our students. A community of learners.  As the Coronavirus mutates, we must hybridize.  Would that make us ‘PHCs‘? Professional Hybrid Communities? Here are my random thoughts on how schools will be for the near future, at least in the US.

  1. Teachers will find ways to better connect with and understand students they don’t see face-to-face or have just a smattering of time with, should they show up in class or on camera.
  2. Parents will form strong partnerships with teachers in that there will be much more back-and-forth, rather than leaving it to annual parent-teacher conferences. We need their unstinting support as much as they need ours.
  3. We will all admit that technology is messy. It’s sometimes broken, and cannot be the magic bullet. Meaning, we will stop complaining about poor WiFi, or the audio not working.
  4. We will not forget the larger lessons we are called to teach. Yes we want to help students dot the i’s and cross their ts, but we want them to have grand takeaways that make them better people, not just high GPA achievers.
  5. The clock-watchers will disappear. It won’t matter if we run  ten minutes over to explain the difference between a web browser and a search engine for the eleventh time. The ‘lab work’ won’t end when the Bunsen burner is turned off.

Let’s not allow a virus to kill our enthusiasm. Let’s be safe. But let’s go!

Chat Republic revisited

Angelo Fernando - Chat RepublicI came across post of interview I gave back in February 2014. It was interesting to recall how I was really anxious about the downward spiral of social media, then.

Read the full interview here.

Two of those questions were:

PB: How did you come up with the title for your book?
AF: I was always amused hearing people repeating the phrase “If Facebook was a country” as if it was a thing to revel in. I have also been fascinated by the power of conversations and the spoken voice that, minus cameras and other distractions, conveys much, much more.

PB: What is the main message you want your readers to understand?
AF: My overarching message is that we risk losing what makes us human by being so distracted that we prefer to scan headlines in 140 characters, rather than dig deep into the issues. We risk losing the art of listening because we are busy thinking how we may craft the next ‘tweet burp.’ After reading my book, I hope my readers reconsider what goes on in the name of marketing communication, PR and corporate communication.

Lilamani Dias-Benson – A legacy of creative ‘infection’

On 11th July, we lost one of Sri Lanka’s premier creative spirits, my former boss and old friend Lilamani Dias-Benson.

There are so many facets of Lilamani, it would take a book to document her work and legacy.  But as many people remember her she infused indefatigable creative energy into advertising from the moment she stepped onto the scene. You could say she metaphorically dominated the room she entered, whether it was an uncomfortable client meeting, a photo-shoot, or a ‘plans-board meeting’ as we called it at JWT.  She would not initially say much but with a few words made everyone reconsider what was at stake. With a  few flourishes of a pencil she would coax you out of your comfort zone and revise the pathetic radio script you brought in on deadline.

I grew up as a cub copywriter at JWT when she took over the reigns in 1986, I believe. For whatever reason my art director friend Rhizvie Saldin and I came under her wing, attending high-powered client briefings, and strategic planning sessions that were above our heads at that time. I was just out of college, and had to bone up on ‘T-Plans’ (the Thompson planning document), and layout theory she made us imbibe late into the evenings. She would cite poetry,  refer to advertising legends such as George Lois, and challenge us to “come to the edge”.

That was a favorite poem of hers that she would quote, ad nauseam. It went:

“Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.”

(I am sure many of you in advertising who passed through her doors have heard her on this.)

I remember Lilamani recite this poem at a JWT creative workshop somewhere in Bentota, and then at a client meeting at John Keells.  She pushed, cajoled, inspired, and delighted everyone around her to recognize creativity, whether they approved of the idea or not.  Unilever meetings were bristly, but we came away with brand managers signing of on creative concepts they rejected a few minutes before! As a boss, she defended our work with a passion. (A perfectionist, if she spotted a tiny spelling error or a layout glitch, we would hear it on our way back to the office!) When I left JWT for studies in England, Lilamani invited me to an Unilever meeting in London, making sure the corporates met someone who worked on their brand. I couldn’t figure out why that was necessary, but in hindsight it was her way of giving me wings.

Lilamani was someone who spoke of something that is oddly relevant for our times – the idea of being ‘infectious‘ long before the tired phrase ‘going viral‘ came into vogue. You can hear her expound on it in that hilarious sitcom episode with Nimmi Harasgama (Aunty Netta)

“Infectious is different to infection,” she explains, because “what I do you catch,” especially something nice. And if I am to paraphrase what she was getting at, she was expounding on how creative ideas circulate, inspire, and return in ways you can never control. This is probably what many of her students experienced, and now continue to spread the Lilamani Dias-Benson brand of creativity whatever they touch.

How could we not. We came. She pushed. We flew.

A newspaper for our times by Kids. “Six Feet of Separation”

Could children ‘report’ on how Coronavirus is ravaging their world? I came across a newspaper that does just that!

It was a project begun  by a father of two children in San Francisco, to engage the children of a small neighborhood called Bernal Heights who were bored, suddenly separated from their friends, and unable to process the changes taking place in our world. “What concerned me were the 7,000 other things going on inside our children, the complex internal rearrangements we wouldn’t begin to comprehend, let alone address, for years. Hell, we have no idea what’s happening in ourselves these days.”

Chris Colin emailed friends and neighbors to see if their children would like to send in stories, poems, drawings etc for a newspaper.  A flood of submissions ensued, and over the weeks he was receiving contributions from  other parts of the country and the world. The name of the newspaper was selected by children, and is fittingly called Six Feet of Separation.

One of the contributors in this recent issue writes a poem about (actually to) Coronavirus.

“I miss all my friends,
I miss all my family,
So now go on and reunite, with MERS and SARS,
And don’t you bring them back,
We will all be happy.”

The newspaper is published on an eBook platform, Flipsnack, which I use in school for a student project. It’s not fancy, but it works! There’s lots of art, a ‘Data’ division, and even an Editorial Page. A hand-made crossword, criticism, fan fiction and more.  This June 13th edition has 24 pages!

A project like this is significant for many reasons. First, it comes at a time when hometown newspapers are being shuttered.  Then there’s the problem of news being hijacked by the adult-made, and politically-crafted news cycle that focuses on aspects of life that are alien and irrelevant to our younger generation. A generation whom Chris Colin rightly observes would in a short time take over the reins from our tired hands. News about angry press conferences, and tax returns make it seem as if nothing else is happening in the world. Six Feet of Separation fills that gap, and addresses those things that children care/worry about.  Let’s give them a platform. And please give them your attention.

Meaning, read this kids-made newspaper!

Unexpected side effects on powerful brands

No one would have predicted these events after a police officer held down his knee for nearly nine minutes on a man’s neck.

  • Johnson and Johnson announced the company will stop producing skin-lightening products sold overseas. The products promise fairer, beautiful skin.
  • The Quaker Oats company said it would rename its Aunt Jemima line of syrups and pancake mixes given the name’s association with racial stereotypes. The name originated in 1889. Quaker is a subsidiary of PepsiCo.
  • Statues of Fr. Junipero Serra a Catholic missionary, Francis Scott Key who wrote the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner would be toppled in San Francisco by protesters.
  • Spotify earned the wrath of listeners when it inserted an “eight-minute and 46-second track of silence” across selected playlists and podcasts to show empathy with the length of George Floyd.
  • Teens on TikTok organized to make sure President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma was poorly attended.

The digital media conundrum

As I prepare a syllabus for a new class on media, I am fascinated by the ambivalence of so many who have moved transitioned from the analog to the digital age.

“On the one hand,” says MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media, “digital technology has been used by progressive social movements” to mobilize citizens to action. But on the other,   we have entered the era of digital media being used for surveillance, “well-funded disinformation campaigns” and extremists.

Newspapers and media organizations also wrestle with this conundrum, as this cartoon aptly captures.

From Editor & Publisher. editorandpublisher.com/cartoons

What’s on these cassette tapes? A past life, a bygone era

More interesting than the  fact that I still have a collection of cassette tapes is what they contain. I managed to play one of them on a not-so-ancient player, and realized it has the edited and raw recording of a program I produced at Broadcasting House at the BBC in London in 1988.

On it are unedited interviews with Margaret Douglas, a TV producer, director and feisty executive during the Thatcher years, who ended up being director general of the BBC. She passed away in 2008. Also there’s one with Allan Little, a well known foreign correspondent at that time, and Nicholas Hinton from Save the Children’s Fund.

But as they say, wait, there’s more! This tape, below archives some work done some years before when I was in advertising, at Phoenix O&M. Our clients’ names are on the tape label. A courier company, a milk-powder and the sugary syrup kept us creatives busy into the night. Driven, of course by persistent account managers who hovered around our desks with 8-page briefs, screaming about a three o’clock deadline.

Between Barnes Place, Colombo and Langham Place,  London the voices and sounds on these tapes are like a time capsule. This week I plan to digitize some of the material to share with my friends. If you’re reading this and are one of those who worked on my team  at the Beeb or at O&M let me know.

Facebook employee resignation reveals dark practices

Take a look at this disturbing resignation letter from employee, Timothy Aveni.

He says that “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie” and that he finds “Facebook complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history.”

He says he’s scared for the US because, “social media-fueled division that has gotten people killed in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” 

A few days back I asked my friends (and posted here) if they could justify using this corrupt social network. But don’t take my word – pay attention to this FB employee!