Monday, May 4, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 1 - Amsterdam Layover

I'm writing this post from 30,000 feet somewhere between Amsterdam and Nairobi.
I want to get my memories from today down before trying to get some sleep on this overnight flight.

Lori and the kids dropped me off at the airport in Newark yesterday afternoon.  It was hard to say goodbye to them.  I'm going to miss them.

The flight from Newark to Amsterdam was uneventful. I sat next to a nice Nigerian woman.  She was surprised that I knew a bit about Nigeria, and that I have collaborated with several Nigerian teachers before.  I tried to sleep as much as possible on the flight, and got about 5 hours of very broken shut-eye, never more than 20 minutes at a time. The best pqrt of the flight was undoubtedly finding these homemade cookies that my daughter snuck into my bag. The note reads:

"Dear Dad,
I love you and I hope you have a great time in Kenya. I know this sounds weird, but I'm super proud of you.
Love, your favorite person,

As we approached Schipol Airport, we flew over the tulip fields of Kukenhof.  That was quite a sight. My airplane window photo doesn't do it justice.
Tulip fields from the air

After getting off the plane, I made it through customs, put my carry-on luggage in a locker, and was on a train to Central Station in less than 45 minutes.  When I got into Amsterdam around 8:30, the city was still asleep.  Not much was open so I wandered around getting a feel for the layout and took a few pictures. Dam square was almost devoid of people, and took a panarama.

Outside the airport

Dam Square
At 10AM I made my way to Yellow Bike Rental for a 2 hour small city bike tour that I had reserved. I enjoyed this a lot.  Bike tours are a great way to get an overview of a city in a short amount of time. Our guide Petra was a university student. She brought us to many of the most notable landmarks in the city, and in true university student fashion, told us all the cheapest places to buy beverages. I was the only American on the tour - others were from Australia, Albania, and I enjoyed some nice conversation with a woman from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Petra, our guide
After the tour I stopped into a small cafe near a canal and had a small panini - mostly because I wanted to use their free wifi to send Skype messages to Lori and the kids wishing them a good morning. The mozerella, pesto, and fresh tomato sandwich was pretty good, though.
One of many beautiful canals
Around 1:45 I met up with my friend Marjolein Hoeksta who I met through the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert program. We started the afternoon with a "100 highlights" canal cruise, which was relaxing and enjoyable. It was hard to stay quiet and listen to the narration because she and I had so much to catch up on.

After the cruise we walked for a bit until we found a little fritte shop by a quiet canal.  We each had a cone of frittes (mine were with mayo), and chatted while our feet dangled over the canal wall.  It was an awesome "Amsterdam-ish" experience.

A selfie with Marjolein on a bridge over a canal
When the frittes were gone we set up my GoPro camera on a tripod and recorded a 10 minute video in which I asked her questions about Remembrance Day, Liberation Day, and the Netherlands, and she shared insights about her country.  Previously students in Tammy Lavoy and Tanya Cunningham's classes back home had come up with questions that they wanted to know, and we used those as a guide for the interview.  In addition, Marjolein has set up an amazing OneNote notebook with lots of information for them on their questions.  We're hoping that the notebook and video spark some further research by the kids.  The video will be posted on YouTube as soon as I upload it.  We were hoping to do this as a live Skype call, but we didn't find an appropriate place with good wifi.

We ended the afternoon by walking around the flower market a bit, and chatting over a cup of coffee at a cafe.  She walked me back to Central Station where I cought a train back to the airport.

At 8PM an announcement came on over the airport speakers announcing that there would be a moment of silence in remembrance of soldiers that had died in and since World War II.  When the bugle played and the moment began, you could hear a pin drop in the airport. The reverance was tangible.  Marjolein had told me that even traffic on the streets and trains stop during this moment each year.

Soon afterwards I boarded the flight I'm on now to Nairobi. I thought I might get lucky and have two empty seats next to me for a minute, but the last two people who got on the plane sat next to me. Oh, well. They seem nice.  Not sure where they are from, but Spanish is their native language.

As I'm typing this I just got a Skype message from my wife (I paid for wifi during the flight so I could blog) telling me that Abby has a 102 fever and a bear got into our garbage. I'm feeling pretty bad about leaving her to hold down the fort for 2 weeks. Many of the things that I do wouldn't be possible if it weren't for her being supportive and holding things together on the back end. I don't know how, but I've got some making it up to her to attend to when I get home.

Well, I'm powering down for a while.  7 hours until I touch down in Kenya, and I plan to hit the ground running.  Shopping for school supplies tomorrow so that I have them for my visits to Cheery and Havilla later in the week.  As they say at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, "Let the Adventure Begin!"

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Final Preparations, Packing List

This post is being cross-posted from my education blog A Teacher's Life for Me. All posts in this series will be posted on both blogs.

The first leg of my flight to Amsterdam leaves Newark, NJ at 5:50 this evening.  With the time change, I will arrive around 8AM in the Netherlands tomorrow if everything is on time.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit nervous. Many times I have told teachers I was working with or students in my classes that being out of our comfort zone is where learning happens.  So, I figure I'm right where I should be.

The aspect of the trip that has me slighly uncomfortable is the lack of exact planning. When we travel as a family, or when I go to a conference to speak, I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of every hotel reservation, flight, meeting, etc.  The nature of this trip is that it can't be planned that way.  And, that's OK. I've got a general idea of where I'm going and what I'm doing most days, but where exactly I'll be sleeping, or eating, or what I will experience at many locations is still a mystery to me. I guess that's why it feels like an adventure. I think it's important for me to let the experience happen organically. That's the way I will get the most out of it, and bring the most home.  It's probably a good lesson for me to learn to let go.

Sushi, Thai food, and the Kentucky Derby.
My horse finished 4th
I know I'm going to miss Lori and the kids a great deal while I'm gone. Since this is a professional blog, I rarely bring my personal life into posts, but the three of them are the world to me. I've travelled quite a bit in the last 2 years since winning PAEMST, but this will be the longest I've been gone and the time change and connectivity issues will make it more difficult than ever to keep in touch with them.  I'm still planning to Skype them as often as possible, even if it's evening for me and before they leave for school in the morning.  We spent a great last day together today watching the new Marvel Avengers movie that just opened and then watching the Kentucky Derby with family over sushi and Thai food. Like many great days, this one ended with ice cream.

Ice-cream is a great way to end a day
Almost every night before bed I read from the Harry Potter series to my son. I've downloaded the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to my iPad, and I'm hoping to steal a few minutes here and there to record myself reading on YouTube to send back to him to watch before bed.

I started my anti-malarial pills yesterday.  So far, I haven't experienced any nasty side effects. I also had a few cranberry and tonic waters at dinner. I hear the quinine in the tonic keeps mosquitos away, so I'm going to try drinking it as much as I can. 

To be as low-maintenence as possible, I got my hair clipped uber-short.  It's the shortest I've ever had it cut.  As an added bonus, my insanely awesome Tilley Hat fits better now. 

Choosing what to bring has been a challenge. I'm allowed two checked bags that can weigh up to 50 lbs each.  They are both maxed out on weight. 

One bag is filled with supplies for the schools. I'm bringing over base-10 blocks, colored counting chips, lots of different numbered dice, number lines, cuisinare rods, Judy clocks, and fraction blocks for some of the students with whom I'll be working.  I'll be giving their teachers a crash course in teaching with hands-on math materials.  Each of the materials I'm bringing has been featured in a Distance Teaching Project video by our Wallenpaupack students, so the teachers and students will be able to refer back to the videos to see how to use them as well.  In that bag I also have a few books and supplies that other teachers have sent to me to bring. I wish that I could have accomodated everyone that wanted me to bring supplies over to the kids in Kibera, but I just couldn't. We had some left-over University of Scranton hats that people didn't take at Edcamp NEPA, so I'm bringing them to give to new friends. It'll be nice to show some pride in my Alma Matter halfway around the world. The contents of that bag are padded nicely with some stuffed animals that Michael was looking to donate. I'm sure I'll find them happy homes in Kibera.

The second checked bag is filled with my clothes, toiletries, a few more school supplies, and some random items that will be fun to have.  At the request of Tracy Hanson from NGGE, who has been on an amazing trip around the world to promote student and community driven education, I am bringing some maple syrup and pancake mix.  I will be meeting her in Nairobi, and she wants to make pancakes with real syrup for our Kenyan friends.  I'm also bringing her a bottle of Advil, which she told me is tough to get in the parts of Africa she's been visiting (Kenya and Cameroon).  I had to switch suitcases while packing because of weight. The piece of luggage that I originally packed these items in was too heavy, so I switched to a rolling duffle bag that allowed me to get in a few extra pounds worth of stuff. 

Organizing my carry-on bag was a little tricky as well. All of the camera and electronic equipment I'm bringing to document the trip has to stay with me, but I also don't want to lug around a heavy pack all day in Amsterdam.  I'm bringing a GoPro camera with several mounts and an external microphone, my iPad, a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet/laptop, my Nikon D90 kit with a few lenses and filters, and a Dolica Ultra Lghtweight Tripod which is sturdy enough for my SLR and folds up to about 16 inches long and weighs less than 3lbs (less than the syrup and pancake mix in the other bag). The Surface 3 seems like the perfect travel device - lightweight, can be used as a tablet, but still functions as a laptop if needed. I'm also packing a few extra pairs of clothes in this luggage as well - in case my other bag gets lost for a few days. I'll be carrying any important documents and such in a money belt under my clothes, including the checks with money raised by our students, kids in Greece, and kids in Kansas that will provide water filters and clean drinking water to almost 500 students in Kibera schools, and 194 homes in the Slum.

For my few hours in Amsterdam I think I'll pack a small daypack in my carry-on bag which I can remove while in the city.  I'll leave the large bag in a locker at the airport and then pick it up before my overnight flight to Nairobi.  

I picked up a cheap Windows phone that I'll use while in Africa.  The plan is to get a Sim card the first day that I arrive with a phone number and data plan. It'll be kind of cool to have a Kenyan phone number.

I'm as ready as I can be, I think. Next time I post will likely be from the Netherlands as I wait for my plane to Kenya. I think I hear the call to post...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Less than a Week to Go

This post is cross-posted from my education blog, A Teacher's Life for Me.  All posts in this series will be posted on both blogs.

(Image - Wikipedia Commons)
Last spring I applied for and was approved to receive the Helen Villaume Education Enrichment Grant from the John and Helen Villaume Foundation.  My proposal had three goals: to develop a Distance Teaching Project collaboration between our students and children in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi, to travel to Kenya to document the benefits of peer-teaching service projects, and to present the project and documentation at ISTE and other conferences afterward.  The Distance Teaching Project has since grown to include schools in China, India, Venezuela, France, and around the United States. Also, our students have joined children in Greece and Kansas to raise money for water filters and school supplies for schools in Kibera through Project LINC. I have been invited to share these projects, as well as others our students have collaborated upon, as part of a talk on the power of partnering students with social innovators at the Africa Summit 2015, which will be held at the University of London this July. 

Within a week I will embark on my trip to Kenya to document the Distance Teaching Project, to learn from teachers and students in Kibera and Kimilili, to share my expertise with teachers at three different schools, and to create some amazing leanring opportunities for our students back home in my home district.  Since I anticipate this to be an experience that is potentially life-altering as well as the adventure of a lifetime, I plan to blog daily to share with all of you just as I blogged our family trip to Europe in 2012.  This is the first post in the series.
Kibera Slum (Image - Wikimedia Commons)

One development that has happened since I wrote the grant is our students' involvement in Project LINC.  Wallenpaupack children have raised over $800 for water filters and over $600 for school supplies for kids in Kibera.  Overall, the project has raised over $6000 for water filters, and the Vestergaard company that produces LifeStraw filters has generously agreed to donate 7 large community filters for the schools in Kibera with which we have been working. I am excited that these water filters will be delivered to families and installed at the Havilla Children's Center and the Cheery Children Education Centre while I am there.  I will be able to shoot video and pictures of this event and I plan to do a live Skype call at that time with children from Greece, Kansas, and home who participated in the fundraising.

I am appreciative to my good friend Livingstone Kegode, who has helped create the projects mentioned above, and has helped me plan my upcoming trip. None of this would have been possible without his guidance. I am so happy that I will get to recipricate when he visits the United States in June/July to present the Distance Teaching Project with me at ISTE.

As of right now, here is my anticipated schedule for the trip:

Sunday 5/3 - Depart Newark for overnight flight to Amsterdam

Monday 5/4 - Layover in Amsterdam. Since it's Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, I am going to do an interview with a Dutch friend to answer questions about this holiday and the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis in WWII.  Also, take a canal tour and have lunch at a nice cafe by a canal.  Maybe buy some clogs.  Overnight flight to Nairobi.

Tuesday 5/5 - Arrive Nairobi. Shop for school supplies.

Wednesday 5/6 - Work with teachers and students at the Havilla Children's Center. Filters will be delivered to the two schools on this day. Shoot footage and pictures to document Distance Teaching Project

Thursday 5/7 - Work with teachers and students at the Cheery Children Education Center. Shoot footage and pictures to document Distance Teaching Project.

Friday 5/8 - I will be spending time at both of the forementioned schools working with teachers and students, and documenting the instillation of the filters.  If all goes as planned I will facilitate a group Skype call with Wallenpaupack students, children from Andover, Kansas, and children from Trikala, Greece to let them see how much good they have done through their project.  There is no better feeling as a teacher than seeing your students experience the joy that comes from using their learning to help others.

Saturday and Sunday 5/9-10 - For my birthday, my wife got me a one-night flying safarin to the Masai Mara.  I will be leaving Nariobi Wilson airport on a tiny turbo-prop plane and flying into the Mara, where I will spend two days on game drives.  My children are excited because this is the same location that "Big Cat Diary" is filmed that they sometimes watch on Animal Planet. I fly back to Nairobi on Sunday night.

Monday 5/11 - Livingstone and I are leaving way before dawn to drive the 5-6 hours to Kimilili, a rural area of western Kenya, where we will spend time working at the Hope Foundation School.  This school opens for the first time next week.  I will be taking hands-on math materials to the teachers there and giving them training in how to use them with students.

Tuesday 5/12 - We will spend the morning at Hope, and then travel 3-4 hours east to Lake Nakuru National Park, where I have arranged to stay for two nights at the Naishi House - a former Game Warden's residence in the middle of the park that is run by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. There are no fences around this house, and animals literally are all around where we are staying. Lake Nakuru NP is famous for it's huge number of Flamingos, as well as other traditional safari animals like rhinos and lions.  We will use the house as a base for exploring the park.

Wednesday 5/13 - While at Lake Nakuru NP this day, I have arranged for a game warden to meet us at the Naishi House to record an interview about the park and the animals in Kenya. If we can work out the timing and internet connectivity we will do this interview as part of a live Skype call with Wallenpaupack students and others from around the globe who wish to join.  If not, I will record the interview and post it online for students to access.

Thursday 5/14 - I have an 11PM flight out of Nairobi to come home.  There are a couple of options before I fly home.  Either we will come back to Nairobi and see a bit of the city, spend some time at Nairobi National Park within the city's borders, or stop at the Mitahato Teaching Farm on the way back to the city.  The Teaching Farm is a location about 45 min north of Nairobi where a 1/4 acre farm has been engineered to provide food for an entire community. Kenyans travel from rural areas to learn here how to replicate this in their own villages.  Mitahato has agreed to partner with our students next year as we build a community garden that will grow food for our local food pantry, so I would like to stop there if we can.

So, this is the plan.  We all know how plans go.  I fully expect that flexibility will be needed during my travels, and that the unexpected will happen at times. Regardless, I hope that I can do some good during the trip, learn lessons that help me grow as a teacher and a person, bring experiences to our students at home, and make connections that lead to future projects. I know that I'll meet lots of people and add many teachers to my global network.

In the next few days before I travel I'll share my packing list.

(Image - Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

2013 Disney PhotoBook

Here is the photo book covering our 2013 trips to Disney World and on the Disney Dream Cruise to the Bahamas.

Shutterfly allows you to customize your photo book just the way you want.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Disneyland Paris and Au Revoir Europe

Our last full day in Europe started with a 7AM breakfast buffet at the Sequoia Lodge and a leisurely walk to the Disneyland Park.

Even though we learned that there wasn't a whole lot open during Extra Magic Hours at Disneyland Paris, we hoped to get a ride on Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and Peter Pan in before joining the mosh pit of people that wait for the 10AM stampede to Big Thunder Mountain by the rope to Frontierland.

We arrived at Disneyland at 8AM and took the waiting Paddy Wagon up Main Street to the Castle.  That was a lot of fun.  The driver was very nice and offered to take our picture by the car in front of the castle.

After taking a few pictures, we made our way to Space Mountain.  Just as it was two days before, Space Mountain was not running due to "technical problems."  We got Fastpasses to use later in the day.

We rode Buzz, and then walked over to Fantasyland and rode Peter Pan.  Since there was a very short wait for Dumbo, we hopped on for a quick ride.  The kids rode the Tea Cups, but Lori and I decided to pass in order to retain our breakfasts.

Around 9:15 we joined the crowd waiting for the Frontierland rope drop at 10AM.  Just like two days before, we second-hand-smoked about 5 or 6 cigarettes.  When the rope dropped, the mayhem that we had come to expect at DLP ensued:  adults trampling children, full-out sprinting, pushing, shoving, etc.    

We arrived at Big Thunder Mountain a few minutes later to find the queue wasn't open.  We had experienced this before, so we didn't think much of it.  People started queuing up behind the rope, but the queue soon started turning into an orderless mob.  After about 5 minutes, there was just a huge mass of people jostling for position.  After 10 minutes it was getting a little tense.  I was holding both Michael and Abby's hands to keep them from being separated.  A large guy with a cigarette in his mouth pushed Michael out of the way and "excused" himself up to his family on the other side of the mob.  It was getting pretty ugly.

After about 15 minutes we decided it wasn't worth the stress of waiting any more.  We correctly assumed that the ride was down for "technical difficulties."  Because both kids really wanted to ride Big Thunder one more time, we promised them we'd get Fastpasses later in the day.  Even with the Fastpasses, they didn't get to ride, though, because each of the 4 times we stopped back, the ride was not running.

We made our way to Pirates of the Caribbean and rode.  It, too, was down for "technical difficulties", but opened just as we arrived at the queue.  

The rest of the day was spent exploring the park at a very relaxed pace.  Abby and Lori rode Space Mountain (which again magically stopped having technical difficulties at 10AM) using Fastpasses while Michael and I rode Buzz again.  Next to Space Mountain we explored the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea walk-through.  We waited in line for 45 minutes to meet Mickey, but the time passed pretty quickly as we watched Have a Laugh cartoons. 

For Lunch we had fish and chips at Toad Hall, a Mr. Toad themed counter service restaurant.  In the afternoon we rode Phantom Manor one last time, and saw some of the minor walk-through attractions we had passed up during the previous two days.  

The kids enjoyed pin trading in the afternoon.  In the back of Frontierland there was a shop that sold pins and Vinylmation.  We met the two best DLP cast members there.  Nadia and Triston are the kind of cast members that have made our trips to Disney so special over the years.  They explained to the kids that the pin-trading rules at DLP are the same as at the other parks, despite what other cast members have told us.

They brought our a pin board for the kids to trade on.  As I thanked them before we left, they asked us to wait a minute so that they could get something for the kids.  Michael and Abby were very excited and appreciative when Nadia and Triston returned with special "1st Visit" Vinylmations for them.   I asked if I could take a picture of the kids with them so that we could remember them, because they had been so wonderful.   

As we walked back to Main Street to pin trade in the Emporium, we passed a fountain.  About a dozen kids had climbed in to swim in their clothes while their parents sat on the edge with their feet in the water.  Based on our experiences over the past two and a half days, we probably shouldn't have been surprised, but we were.  This kind of thing just isn't allowed, and doesn't happen at Disney World in Florida.

Pin trading in the Emporium wasn't as pleasant for Michael as it had been before.  He only had one pin left on his lanyard that he was willing to part with.  He asked a male cast member to trade, but the guy wasn't willing to take the pin that Michael wanted to give him because it had Mickey on it.  According to the cast member he "didn't like Mickey because that's my boss."  Abby stepped in and offered a different pin, which she shouldn't have had to do, but the guy still didn't like either pin.  

Appalled at this guy's attitude, we told Michael to try and find a different cast member with whom to trade.  Michael was a bit upset because he couldn't understand why this guy wouldn't trade with him.  It would have been tough to explain to him that some DLP cast members make up their own rules, so we just told him that the guy wasn't a great cast member.

We had a dinner reservation for Walt's at 6PM.  When we arrived we spent a few minutes debating whether or not to get the dinner package that included priority seating for both the Fantillusion Parade at 10:15 and the showing of Disney Dreams at 11PM.  Even though the price wasn't that much more, we passed on the package because we didn't think we'd all make it if we tried to stay out that late again.

Walt's had a great atmosphere, decorated in turn of the century style to fit in with it's location on Main Street.  We rode up to the dining room in the antique elevator which had old filament style light bulbs and stained glass.  Dinner was good, but nothing special.  The kids enjoyed seeing some of the 7 o'clock parade outside the window next to our table.  

In the evening we rode Pirates again, where two guests got into a swearing match.  It got very heated and escalated to a point where the one guy climbed out of the boat as it was loading, leaned over the railing and spit at the second guy.  The cast members looked at each other, not really knowing what to do.  Finally they let them both ride, and had security waiting for them at the end of the ride.

The kids wanted to do a little more exploring on Adventure Isle, so we allowed them to play a bit and walked through the Swiss Family Treehouse.  On the way out of the park we walked passed Big Thunder Mountain one last time to see if it was running, but it wasn't.

We left the park just after it was getting dark.  As we walked under the train station and out of Disneyland, we had a little of the "we're sad we're leaving Disney" feeling that we know all too well from our trips to Disney World, but it wasn't nearly as strong as normal.  All of us were looking forward to getting home after twenty days of living out of backpacks.

As we walked back through the Disney Village we picked up a set of Disneyland Paris Christmas Tree ornaments for our Disney tree we put up in our foyer every year.  We took the long way back to our hotel, stopping in the lobby of the Newport Bay Club hotel to see how it compares to the Beach Club - a similarly themed Disney World hotel that's one of our favorites.  

We went to bed with the very pleasant thought that our next bedtime would be in our own beds at home.  Even though the trip had been amazing, and one that we will always remember, twenty-one nights spent on planes, overnight trains, and in hotels makes you really miss your own bed.

The next morning we woke up and went to breakfast at 8.  Our train to the airport didn't leave until 10:55, and our flight home didn't leave until 1:55, so we had a little time to meet characters in our hotel in the morning.  

I stopped by the front desk and asked them to print our airline boarding passes.  They told me that they couldn't do this, and that I'd have to walk over to the Hotel New York, and use the business center to print them myself.  This was another of those moments in which Disneyland Paris seems to make things much more inconvenient than they need to be.  Luckily we weren't too rushed for time.

We walked over to the Hotel New York, and the kids met Mickey one more time as I walked to the business center.  I paid 5 Euro to find out that our boarding passes needed to be printed at the airport.  On the way to the business center there was a sign for Shea Stadium, a place where I have so many memories from going to Mets games throughout my life, so I made Lori take a picture of me next to the sign.  I didn't take a picture in front of the Yankee Stadium sign.

The train to the airport, and the flight home were rather uneventful.  I did get stopped at security at the airport and had my bags searched.  The agent asked me if I had any butter in my bag, which I thought was odd, but let me pass through when he was convinced that I did not.  

We watched movies on the flight home, and got through immigration and customs in New York pretty quickly.  My father picked us up at the airport and drove us to his house out on Long Island to get our car.  The 2 1/2 hour ride back home to the Poconos was tough with jet-lag, but it felt great when we were all able to put on clean clothes and collapse into our beds.

It really was an amazing trip, and we made so many wonderful memories.  I feel so blessed that we were able to provide so many great experiences for our kids, and that we were able to spend so many happy moments as a family, and with other family members.