“Banning mobile devices is holding students back from cost effective learning opportunities. Africa has one of the highest ratios of mobile phones to population. We should be utilizing that.” – Brenda Hallowes, South Africa

Like many of the outstanding teachers we profile here at Daily Edventures, Brenda Hallowes hasn’t let a lack of resources get in the way of providing a 21st century education to her students. Despite the challenges of outmoded computers and resistance to change, Hallowes has managed to connect her young students with children around the world through initiatives like the Global Lunch Table project, introduce them to social networking through edmodo.com and even achieve the first African win in ThinkQuest, which enabled her to take several of the winning students to San Francisco.

But Hallowes, an accomplished educator working at Cotswold Preparatory School and who was recognized as part of Intel’s 10 Million Teachers Celebration, also embraces her role in educating and influencing other teachers. Her blog reflects on her own teaching practices and she’s established a number of forums for teachers to learn from each other, including a precursor to Teach Meet (she hopes to formalize a Teach Meet program before the end of this year) and peer coaching groups.  She recently set up a wiki on thinking as a collaborative resource for teachers to build a collection of practical lessons for teaching their students to think.

Today, Hallowes shares with us her secrets for overcoming resource challenges and her passion for working with other teachers.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

My husband and I moved to Port Elizabeth seven years ago. I had previously worked as a computer teacher at a mission school in KwaZulu Natal. I managed to get a similar position in a public school here, teaching computer skills to Grades 1 to 3 at a foundation phase school. Initially the teachers at the school didn’t want anything to do with technology – they regarded that as my job. Through my exposure to a large network of innovative people in education and attendance at conferences, I gained a vision for innovation in my lessons and have tried to implement new tools and ideas.

When I arrived at the school the computer lab had 17 old and slow computers and no Internet connection. In 2007 the principal bought 17 up-to-date computers and a laptop.  After many requests we were given a 1GB Internet line in the lab which we shared with the administration office. It was slow and tedious but it was the start of new things as we could now work in online spaces such as ThinkQuest Projects and wikis.

Over the years, the teachers at my school have come to see the value of integrating technology into the classroom curriculum. I have tried to be consultative and to share what the children are doing. Winning ThinkQuest had an effect on our school due to the honor it brought to us as a community and a country.  Our project was the first African win in ThinkQuest and our trip to ThinkQuest Live in San Francisco was truly a tour of a lifetime.

As a staff we have moved on and now all administrative tasks are done on computers. We now have two connected computers in the staffroom and they are in constant use. I introduced the teachers to cloud work and they share documents between one another, and their home and school computers.  We have a faster, uncapped Internet line which allows me to use online tools for lessons. Some of the teachers also use our old lab computers to allow the children to play simple educational games in the classroom when they are finished with their work.

I am looking forward to the time when technology becomes fully integrated into the classroom and not a separate lab thing. Our vision is to have at least one networked computer in each classroom. The one thing holding us back is financial constraints. I believe that once teachers have their own laptop to work with they will really enjoy the opportunities that technology brings to teaching and learning.

I have over the past six years been privileged to work with teachers from schools in our region through the Microsoft Peer Coaching program and the Intel Teach program.  Both of these courses are facilitated through SchoolNet SA and they have given teachers a vision for innovation and integrating ICT into teaching and learning. Working with teachers is my passion.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

As a result of our ThinkQuest win, other teachers have done courses in project-based learning and have become interested in integrating ICT into lessons where appropriate. The Peer Coaching program has inspired teachers in our region.

Teachers I have worked with have caught a new vision for education through higher order thinking and technology that goes beyond the classroom walls. If their school does not yet have computers or Internet, they look forward to a time when they will have technology instead of fearing it.  The teachers at my school are more open to the possibility of integrating technology into their lessons and my vision is to focus less on the computer lab and more on each classroom having at least one connected computer.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Change doesn’t happen overnight and I always encourage teachers to take one idea and give it a try. Success motivates us to try something else, especially when we share our successes and frustrations with other teachers. Do what we can with what we have in your own context.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I am the computer teacher so my whole focus for lessons is technology. I consult the teachers and find out what their unit theme is before planning a lesson that is relevant to what they are doing in the classroom but at the same time, takes the children to another level through introducing problem-based learning and higher-order thinking.  I am presently introducing our Grade 3 classes to the concept of critical and creative thinking. They are enjoying talking about different kinds of thinking, especially when I tell them it’s a lifelong skill. It makes them feel very important – especially when I tell them the term for thinking about our thinking is “metacognition”!

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Our provincial education department is in serious financial trouble. Morale is low in the province and there is a general air of negativity. In my own lessons I just try to be the best that I can be and to make the most of the limited resources we have in our school. The teachers in my school are very competent and hard-working and are making a difference in the lives of our children.  We need to get as many skills as we can and work towards being excellent and effective educators and stop worrying about the challenges of our regional education department. The children in our classrooms now need the very best we can offer.

What is your country/region doing right to support education?

I find this question quite hard to answer right now. There is a lot of talk but very little action. There is too much focus on politics and political appointments being made at the expense of the children. Here is an example of the mess we are in. In my own province, the Eastern Cape, many schools, including mine, received their books but in the wrong language!

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Education in South Africa has reached an all-time low. The government is not making it enough of a priority. However, I sense that the people have had enough and through social media like Twitter and Facebook they are making their voices heard. I sense the people will no longer tolerate excuses and they are demanding accountability. There are many dedicated officials who want to make things right and I believe we will be able to work towards a better education system in the years to come.

Teachers need to be helped to move into the 21st century. The government must stop changing the curriculum. We have had three major changes since 1994. The problem is with attitudes amongst the stakeholders, not the curriculum itself. If each teacher decided to be a teacher of excellence in their sphere of influence we will make great strides. It’s not just about having technology – it’s having the will to be the best that we can be. Each teacher has the power to reach for excellence.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I believe that networking through social media gives teachers incentive and inspiration to improve, grow and become innovative. Decide to try something new at least once a week. Read other teacher’s blogs and find ideas to try out in your own room. I join a growing number of South African teachers for #edchatsa on Monday evenings on Twitter. It’s a platform for sharing and encouraging one another. It’s my favorite professional development tool.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Get a personal learning network. Join Twitter, follow the innovators in education, learn from others, ask questions, read, share what you are doing and go beyond the classroom walls. Start a reflective blog and share it with others.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

I think the growth in the tablet market is beginning to having an impact on education. Going mobile seems to be the way forward. Our school is not there yet but I am open to the possibility in the future.  Learners in higher grades should be permitted to bring their mobile phones to school and use them for learning. Banning mobile devices is holding students back from cost effective learning opportunities. Africa has one of the highest ratios of mobile phones to population. We should be utilizing that.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give each child a tablet. This is a tool that incorporates digital media such as an e-reader and multimedia tools. In our own context here in SA we are having endless problems with distribution of learner support material in the form of textbooks. If each student were given a tablet/e-reader with the material loaded it would save lots of trees and problems and in the longer term it would be more cost effective. I own a Kindle and see the value of having all my reading material in digital format and realize its potential for school use. Next on my wish list is a tablet for personal “research” into the possibilities.

About Brenda Hallowes

Birthplace: Durban, South Africa
Current residence: Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Education: I have a Further Diploma in Education. I did my initial teacher training at Edgewood College of Education in Durban, KwaZulu Natal.
Website I check every day: Our school Facebook page and news pages. I also spend
part of each day with Tweetdeck open and follow links.
Person who inspires me most: My husband. He is always calm, consistent and infinitely patient with people – qualities I aspire to.
Favorite childhood memory: Family picnics at a scenic spot on the Zululand coast.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  My husband and I plan to visit the UK in July 2013 to celebrate our anniversary with our daughter who lives in London.  (Be sure to check out Hallowes’ blog on her trip to eight African countries in 2010.)
When was the last time you laughed? Why?  I recently had time with my two little grandchildren who live in Kwa Zulu Natal. They are such a delight and I spent time rolling around on the lawn with them, playing silly games.
Favorite book: There are many of them but I think my all time favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My favorite non-fiction book is Teaching Children to Think by Robert Fisher.
Favorite music: Baroque style
Your favorite quote or motto:Always believe that what you do today helps to prepare you for something better tomorrow.”Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor

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