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.

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.

Alone Together – How teachers deal with virtual school

During these days of isolating and distancing ourselves from our colleagues and friends, I have reminded of the title of one of my favorite books, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Alone Together.

Granted the book was about technology and robotics, but also on the ‘illusion of intimacy’ as technology was slowly polarizing us. It was a contentious topic whenever I brought it up, having  having once been a cheerleader of social media as encapsulated in my 2013 book, Chat Republic.

Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash.com

But today, we all turn to the very technologies that glue us to screens, to reconnect in very unusual ways. My wife, for one (who usually advocates no screen time or very limited screen time for her young preschool students) took to Zoom. To get a 3 year-old to be in on a ‘conference call’ is a challenge for any teacher, and at odds with Montessori education.  This Monday her learning packets (left outside on Mondays for parents to pick up) included seeds, a bio-degradable pot and and dirt, with instructions they will use in the Zoom class. Montessori involves a lot of sensorial learning and ‘practical life‘ – it was Earth Day yesterday, after all. Yes, we are all learning on the job!

As for me, I have had to come up with creative ways to engage my students – weekly, daily, hourly – to keep them  on track with ongoing projects. We are ‘together’ but by appointment only whether it was via Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. I’ve been using Google Forms embedded into a Google spreadsheet. (The first was about how two of Google’s ‘moonshot’ programs are being revamped as tools to assist during the pandemic.). My students are working on a COVID-19 Report, analyzing data (and thereby understanding spreadsheets) formatting the document in real-time with me during our Wednesday Google Meet calls. This requires me to have to generate PDFs and data sets on the fly, when my online explanations fall flat. Just because we all have mics and cameras don’t solve the problem of not being face-to-face.

Online education is a lonely endeavor. You get to sense it after a few weeks of not hearing voices down the hallway, not being in an unplanned meet-up over a paper-jam in the teacher’s lounge, not being asked to fix a colleagues overhead projector, and thereby seeing something on his wall that gives you an idea for next week’s lesson plan, not being at the daily school assembly and hearing something about the volleyball team that makes your heart soar.  Facebook and Instagram (in my book, Fakebook and Instabrag) can only give you so much.

My school is trying to fill the gaps. We still continue with our Benjamin Franklin Semper Sursum awards. Our weekly conference calls are lively and inspiring. I still visit the school parking lot now and then to meet a colleague and purchase free-range eggs from her farm. My wife and I one day took a long walk and made an unannounced home visit to one of her students, at whose home we dropped off some curry leaves. We both call our students’ parents, and keep fine-tuning our teaching methods to suit the moment.

On a separate note, I am also following an online class at the University of Phoenix. Being a student and a teacher at different times of the day is odd. But everything’s out of whack, and this is, to use a tired phrase, our new normal. We will survive!

Could Maker Spaces help with urgent hospital equipment?

When Maker Spaces became popular, the idea was to help average people improvise technology with simple material. Where are the Maker Spaces now?

The good news, is they have taken the challenge, as you can see here.  From face shields to cloth masks, and even automated ventilators. These specs are for a face shield using a 3D printed visor. (From Columbia University librarians.) But I would imagine that off-the-shelf plexi-glass would do. The University of Arizona  Dept of Health Science has a similar project.

Could you help? Why not start with making cloth face masks for the family, and neighbors? The patterns are here as PDF downloads. The Center for Disease Control also has a step-by-step tutorial.

Looking ahead, I hope one of the lessons from Covid-19 and the new normal would include the ability to rapidly mobilize citizens to come to the aid of over stressed hospital systems. While we are all isolating, at least we could keep our hands busy.

Meanwhile, mask brokers and fraudulent middlemen have been trying to capitalize on the lack of preparedness.

Bend the Curve

Do the math,
Bend the Curve,
Keep your distance,
Don’t lose your nerve.

Read a book,
Cover your noses,
Write a letter,
Smell the roses.

Follow your heart,
Not the herd,
Help a stranger,
Spread the word.

Enjoy the pause
It’s not so bad,
Don’t complain,
Or instabrag.

The curve will flatten
Trust in prayer.
Precious times
Like this are rare.

What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

Back to the future – Viewing the original 30-year old World Wide Web!

Want to check out what the early Web looked like? This is almost like being able to tune a transistor radio to listen to an oldies station. As the Web celebrates its 30th anniversary today, there’s a way to see what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned in March 1989. Built by CERN, the organization where Berners-Lee worked, it’s possible to look at the original web pages. Here’s how they explain it:

“The WWW Project merges the techniques of information retrieval and ‘hypertext’ to make an easy but powerful global information system.”

Berners-Lee’s  philosophy was that academic information should be freely available to anyone. This recreation includes a link to another information retrieval device that has gone the way of floppy discs and library cards –the phone book (for CERN).

As for his original brainchild, you can browse through his March 1989 proposal for the Web, and marvel at the details he outlined. His boss, who looked at his proposal, famously called it ‘vague but exciting.

[Interesting how I can ‘hyperlink’ that document above from 30 years ago, because of what he made possible. Equally interesting is that while Berners-Lee put hypertext into use, a fellow named Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the mouse) explained it –as ‘hypermedia‘.]

As we peel back the curtain and see how it all began, let’s appreciate those humble beginnings, and work toward a cleaner, more responsibly hyperlinked world. Social media has made a mockery of much of his vision, and we all have a part to play in how it evolves.

What should schools really teach?

With schools in session, tests and test preps take up a lot of time. From AP test registration, PSATs and benchmark testing. A necessary evil?

Peter DeWitt, a school principal who blogs about leadership issues, (in Education Week), talks about Social & Emotional learning that gets downplayed as a result. He believes that schools should not lose sight of what’s as critical as the ‘data’ they are after. “For too many years, the focus has been on standardized testing and international comparisons of student performance with little attention given to helping students deal with the trauma they experience,” he writes.

Others take a different approach – that education is not something you do from the neck up. In the trend to prime students for colleges and careers, schools are driven toward short term results. just to have a scorecard to brag about, after all. Social and emotional learning doesn’t have a rating scale.

My principal, Mark McAfee, puts it this way:

The richness of a classical education…does not show up on a standardized test or that which is impossible to test. Namely, and among other things, works of literature for the sake of their beauty and effect on the heart of students; rhetorical skills; the soul-shaping effect of the arts on our youth; the physical courage, teamwork, trust, and hard work learned by our athletes on the field of play; the teaching of virtues, a thorough understanding of the chronology of ideas and the history of Western Civilization and our country’s founding.

For this reason at Benjamin Franklin High School, we have a daily school assembly, an ‘Opening Ceremony,’ during which students hear about anyone from C.S. Lewis to Machiavelli. The study of leadership and character through great men and women, and things such as music, art, philosophy, dance, are (at the heart of) our school curriculum, and pays great dividends.

Dan Wool’s ‘Cubicle Podcast’

Podcasting just keeps evolving!  Whenever I bring up the topic, either in class or is a media discussion, I find the old definitions are inadequate. The production quality, and the platforms have changed. The content creators have certainly got more comfortable with the format.

So this week I like to showcase a podcast from an old friend, Dan Wool. A solid communications and PR pro (he co-taught a webinar with me in 2010), Dan is now on his way to becoming a doctor!  His podcast focuses on –what else?- health issues. His website, cubicleclinic.com is filled with his take on health and lifestyle issues cubicle dwellers face.

If this topic interests you, please click on this link, or the icon on the right and give it a listen.