This year’s focus for the school has been student empowerment and service learning, and we continue to find ways to integrate these into our planning for 1:1.
At this point in the planning process we’re conducting research and building relationships with stakeholders. Students have been interviewing their peers at other schools (TAISM, AIS Kuwait, IS Dakar, UWC-SEA, SIS, UTB Helsingborg, and ICS Addis; with some help from me for Episocopal Academy and AIS Lusaka). This has required them to apply their skills in collaboration, communication and research in an authentic context.
They’re also going to present their research to a forum for parents and faculty this week and get their feedback. In addition to the obvious cross-curricular applications of skills involved here, this empowers the students to express their own opinions and have a say in the future direction of the school.
It has been a challenging sustaining student interest. I’ve now got a core of six committed students who are coming on Mondays after school to work. Developing a comprehensive plan is a challenge, and developing several competing proposals as I’d like to do would require more time than any of us have. More labor is needed. Somewhat coincidentally, the school has decided to run a service learning project the last week of this semester (in January), and we’ve found a way to take advantage of this.
We’ve designed a service learning project for the entire senior class where their task will be to synthesize the research and feedback so far into either a plan for the secondary school or elementary school. We hope to have two competing proposals in each area. The students will need to evaluate the data collected so far; learn about professional grant-writing, budgeting, and the concept of total cost of ownership; and then write a proposal encompassing all of the components of a 1:1 program. Done right, it will bundle very authentic skills into a project that will have a very visible impact on student learning in the school – a senior gift with lasting meaning.
The mission of schools should be to make productive citizens, not money. When the two are in conflict, the former should take precedence. At the same time, insolvent schools don’t produce anything except jobless teachers, so schools need to have a clear strategic vision to attract and retain students.
AISB needs to reach its former, pre-coup enrollment but faces many difficulties in doing so for reasons beyond its control. As one of two American schools in Bamako and the one with the closest ties to the embassy communities it is the default choice for anglophone expatriates, but that community is small because of recent and renewed political challenges. Bamako is a family posting for the US embassy, but that status was conferred after a whole crop of staffers without dependents was hired. It’s still considered a high-risk post by commonwealth countries, so we don’t have the Canadian students who used to comprise a sizeable chunk of our student body. We have thus cornered the market for the usual demographic of international students, and can’t do anything to attract more to come to Bamako.
That leaves us targeting the francophone expatriate and upper-class Malian communities who send their children to the French-system schools (lycees). The goal for these communities is likely to send their children to university in France, and an American education is not an asset for that, but the Bac offered through a lycee is. Switching the school to the IB curriculum would help there, but isn’t financially feasible at the moment. The lycees are also much cheaper than our school – the most expensive one is just half of our tuition, and this is a pattern seen in other francophone West African cities like Abidjan.
At the same time, we do offer a distinctly rewarding educational experience. This past year we’ve had three students come to us from the lycees and both they and their parents are extremely happy with the decision. They like the collaboration, creativity, and individual care of AISB’s learning environment. So how do we spread the word?
Part of our communication plan was to create a promo video for the school to showcase why it’s unique in Bamako. Since one of the audiences was the francophone community, it’s been subtitled in French – see the CC box in the bottom-right once the video starts playing.
More info about that process to come in the next blog post.
The other piece is a grassroots (for a lack of a better word) campaign to promote the school. We’ve outsourced design of business cards to a student in my tech modules class with the idea that our faculty and certain parents can use them to introduce themselves to families we meet at social functions and public events and give them a personal invitation to tour the school. The cards will highlight what we think makes AISB a uniquely valuable educational experience.
But aside from that, we don’t have a well-oiled PR machine. Buying billboards, print, and media advertisements would be one route, but I’m not convinced that they would reach our target audience because expatriates and upper class Malians probably follow international outlets. Buying Google AdWords targeting French expatriates moving here might make a difference. We need a Strategic Committee sponsored by a board member that works with the PTO to find the best way to reach the francophone community. Expatriates who are moving to a new – whether francophone or not – tend to seek out schools more than schools need to be actively reaching out to them. We need to make it as easy as possible for those prospective parents to find us. And for upper class Malians, we need to find a way to reach them on their terms and then provide a compelling reason to try a new avenue of education for their children.
What I haven’t covered here is how programming can differentiate a school. Our academics are already great. Building a pool might be a loss-leader that appears to be an unprofitable investment but tips the scales in favor of sending a child here. More opportunities to participate in WAISAL and other athletic/activities exchanges in the region would also help, as would continuing to strengthen after school activities and going to a 1:1 program. But that’s a whole other topic.
We live in an age that loves to upgrade. Our smartphones get thinner bodies, bigger screens, and more features. Our meals get new packaging, more taste, bigger portions. And our schools get new buzzwords, new standards, and new technology. As tech coordinator, part of my job is to facilitate the learning process by ensuring that teachers and students have access to computing resources and the knowledge to use them. Many of us coordinators evaluate tech integration according to the SAMR model:
It’s not useful to evaluate technology solely by SAMR, though. Treating it as a hierarchy, with “Redefinition” being the goal, is the same as saying that “change is good.” But few would argue that New Coke’s taste “change” was good, or that a “change” in US election districts to make it easier for an incumbent party to stay in power is productive, or that the “change” in a virus so that it mutates into a more easily transmissible strain is a good thing. So why should we treat “redefinition” as the top level of a hierarchy of tech integration? If it isn’t broke, should we be trying to fix it?
We need a qualifier that helps us to evaluate the substitution, augementation, modification, or redefinition that is happening – something that tells us what is broken and how to fix it. We’re making a conscious choice to integrate technology, and schools hire people specifically to help teachers do this, because… why? Because of broad ideas like “21st century learning” and because students are “digital natives” and because “we need to prepare them for an [unspecified, but different] future?”
The necessary qualifier, for me, is authenticity – one of the cornerstones of Understanding by Design. Does technology help you make students’ learning more authentic – are they practicing skills and habits, and creating products, that approximate things they’d do in the real world as productive citizens and employees? It’s easier to go into a teacher’s classroom and introduce them to new and, for many teachers, difficult technology concepts when explained like this. Your students should make videos not because it’s “fun” and “different” but because visual literacy is an important way that we communicate in the modern world. They should make an ebook because self-publishing is how lots of authors, like Hugh Howey, are finding success these days. They should make use of tools like Glogster and Prezi and Xmind because presenting ideas to a group should look as professional as possible and because professionalism is effective – if you expect it in the workplace, why shouldn’t you expect it at school? Our director rejects resumes because they look shoddy and cast doubt upon potential teachers’ competency as a whole.
Sometimes I feel that my position as “IT Coordinator” actually undermines my ability to help teachers. The title carries along with it an implication that I’m getting teachers to use technology for it’s own sake, which is hardly the case. My counterpart at the International School of Ouagadougou is the Curriculum Coordinator/Tech Integrator, and was formerly a Learning Community Director in Belgrade. Someone responsible not for technology but for learning. We say that technology is not something that should be taught separately – so why should those of us who support classroom teachers be referred to as people doing something distinct from learning support? And when the next generation of teachers enters the workforce already fluent in technology, why will “technology integrators” even be necessary?
Maybe redefinition is what is needed in my career.