Life (and education) Changing Experience

I apologize for the length of this post in advance. I’ve spent the night updating the blog and doing some reflection on the past few years of the PacRimX project. With the way everything has gone I felt the need to put this all in writing after being off on vacation (and furlough days) for the past two weeks. I hope you find it interesting, enlightening, and if you are involved in education possibly motivating and life changing.

Almost four years ago I was asked by two of the Modesto City Schools Administrators who had long run the exchange program between Modesto and Kyoto to go to dinner with the visiting Japanese. It was a simple request. They wanted to discuss technologies that could assist with building closer relationships between the students of our two countries. At the time I figured what the heck, it would be fun to talk tech with the visiting Japanese and to share a dinner together. But that’s about as far as I saw it going at the time.

At this dinner they gave me a one page outline of ideas that they had for putting our students face to face prior to the exchanges. The exchange program had been running for over twenty years, and they wanted to ease the tension of the first few days of an exchange by having a series of video conferences leading up to each of the trips. Towards the end of the dinner I discovered (never knew this before) that there was a 17 hour time difference between our two countries and not a lot of overlap (none for class time).

Chris Flesuras (left, MCS Deputy Superintendent and past coordinator of Kyoto Foreign Exchange) and Chris Flesuras (right, KG English Teacher and co-founder of PacRimX Project). Picture taken in Kyoto during Spring Exchange 2009

As a parting comment at the end of the night I suggested that we incorporate Second Life into our technology solutions to build these relationships. I had long been involved with virtual worlds and this seemed like a great idea to supplement the exchange program. By the end of dinner I had the strange feeling that I was getting pulled into something more than just a dinner with the visiting Japanese. One of the Modesto administrators (Rodney Owen) told me on the way to our cars after dinner that there was no way they would jump at this virtual world suggestion without a lot of discussion back in Japan on the subject.

The next day the visiting Japanese administrators came back very excited and wanted to pursue this idea and the video conferences to supplement the exchange program. I agreed to help get this off the ground with Chris Flesuras, a teacher from Modesto that was now teaching at Kyoto Gakuen High School and was part of this fateful dinner. His father Chris Flesuras was also at the dinner, and was the one who had started this foreign exchange program with Kyoto Gakuen back when he was a principal at one of our high schools. Both of his sons were now teaching English in Kyoto after first visiting while high school students in Modesto City Schools.  I figured a few months of helping to get this off the ground would be both  challenging and fun.

The original team (my four sons in center) from Modesto on a visit to Linden Lab in December 2006. I am second from the left and that’s Claudia ‘Linden” third from the left who was very helpful in getting this project off the ground on the Teen Grid of Second Life.

As I got involved with this project my own children, specifically my then sophomores in high school triplets volunteered to help. They all had several year’s experience with Second Life and specifically with time on the Teen Grid (restricted to 13 – 17 year olds). They were the first to introduce me to Global Kids, a very large cultural education project on the Teen Grid. As it turned out, we were the second K-12 project to officially start up on the Teen Grid of Second Life, and we only missed being the first by a few months (Peggy Sheehy holds that honor with her Rampo Islands).

Our first PacRimX Shared Campus with Kyoto Gakuen on the Teen Grid of Second Life

That first year was amazing. We built an entire virtual campus shared by our two schools on private islands on the Teen Grid. I helped to organize the first activities to be held between our students with Chris Flesuras in Kyoto (co-founder of PacRimX). And my kids were named “founding students” of the project and contributed a lot of time building and training both teachers and students. My boss at the time asked me if I knew what I was getting myself into. I told her that I did not, but that I had always wanted to be a teacher and that this project gave me a little taste of what a teacher experiences working with students (both the rewards and frustrations). She said as long as I knew, and that I was going in with my eyes wide open, she would support my participation in this project.  I thank her for that (thanks Debbe!).  She also helped come up with the name PacRimX.

My son Mark teaching teachers how to use Second Life early in the development of the project

Almost two years ago I was asked by the two people who had coordinated the exchange trips to Kyoto in the past if I wanted to take over for them (Rodney Owen, then Director of ROP and Chris Flesuras, then Associate Superintendent of Human Resources). Rodney was retiring and Chris wanted to pass the baton to someone new and younger that could keep up the pace required for this type of project. Rodney told me that he no longer had it in him to make that trip to Kyoto (I did not know what he meant at the time, but now understand after surviving one exchange trip to Kyoto). Thankfully both of these people are very good friends and have imparted much of their wisdom, experience and advice to me over the past four years. I could not have done what I’ve done to date with this project without their support and input. They are truly my mentors and friends.

My son Mark and Rodney Owen (early supporter of PacRimX and Partner in prior Kyoto Exchange program)

Somewhere along the way I fell completely into this program. I became fascinated with Japan and the Japanese culture. I don’t know when my temporary outlook on this project flipped to being long term, but it was definitely in the first year. I don’t know when the feeling of being a visitor or outsider turned to being deeply immersed in everything Japan, but my first visit to Kyoto this past year definitely cemented my love of  Japan and the Japanese people. And I don’t know when it was that I ditched most of my hobbies and had this project take over a large percentage of my free time outside of work. But somewhere along the way it happened, and I am the better for it.

The first teacher to assist me with PacRimX from Modesto only lasted a year. Mr. Cornwell has been with this project for the past few years. He is an awesome teacher that fully engages his students in learning about computers and multimedia. He has a background in programming and gaming from college.  His enthusiasm with students has been brought fully into this project. We both bring unique experience and skills to the mix and complement each other’s contributions. Neither of us could do this alone. And the partners we have in Kyoto now are a vital and critical component that makes everything work smoothly. This is important as this project now runs year round with the planning and execution of the various trips and activities between our schools.

Brad Cornwell, partner in PacRimX Exchange and Summer School Program

And I can’t leave out my own kids involvement in this project, and how that has fueled my enthusiasm. My entire family has been involved, even including my now sixth grader following in his brothers footsteps (although starting at a much earlier age). Since we merged our PacRimX project with Skoolaborate, two of my kids have been very involved and continue to contribute to that community, even forging close friendships with many students from around the globe who participate in the Skoolaborate project. One of my sons is currently doing his Senior project for high school on virtual worlds and education. Mr. Cornwell is his advisor for this project, even though they are not students in our district. And all of them have expanded their life views on education and careers beyond California, beyond the US, and out to a global range of possibilities.  It is quite normal for them to interact with and collaborate with students from Australia, Canada, Europe and other countries several times a week now on the Skoolaborate islands.

My son Corey and me in the Kyoto Computer Lab Spring Break Exchange 2009

This year I made the decision that if I am going to be doing this for any length of time that I really need to learn Japanese (I have probably 15 years left until I retire, if I am lucky to retire that early). All of the Kyoto students and teachers know English to some degree. Kyoto Gakuen is a private English learning High School. I was so lost last year while in Kyoto (away from the school on my own) not being able to read the signs or communicate on even a basic level. I am motivated to at least learn basic Japanese before this year’s exchange. I tried to teach myself Japanese from books without much success. I then tried Rosetta Stone, but quickly found I could easily fool the program without really learning (or being called on it). I now have a private teacher who I see every Tuesday after work for an hour and a half (sometimes we go longer) who is working with me on my Japanese. I know this will be a long path to truly learn Japanese, but I am an eager student and have nothing but enthusiasm for the effort. And I have a great teacher who is also becoming a friend.

Last year I was told by an administrator in Kyoto that I was too old to learn Japanese. I am 46 years old and I’ve never taken a foreign language in my life (outside of a month of Spanish in high school that I eventually dropped). I figure it’s high time that I check off learning another language from my life list of todo’s. And what better way to keep the brain young and elastic than forming new neural pathways learning Japanese (especially at my age)?

Over the past few months I’ve been learning how to cook Japanese. I’ve found several places in the Bay Area and in my local area where I can buy Japanese goods (I absolutely love Peach Gokuri). Someone asked me why I was learning how to cook Japanese. I told them that I wanted to be able to cook for my host families in Japan on future trips. Their reply was “Why would they want you to cook bad Japanese food when you could cook them American dishes?“, I laughed (and realized they were right) and replied that I was learning for myself and my family’s enjoyment.

Dave Menshew (left) and Scott Kuykendall (Director ROP and Rodney Owen’s replacement and PacRimX supporter)

I decided to write this blog post as I sat here at 12:30am the night before returning to work after a two week Christmas vacation. Three of the days off were mandatory furlough days. The funny thing is I went to Modesto with three of my sons to meet with Chris Flesuras (whose home in Modesto for the holidays from Kyoto) and Dave Menshew (the Biotechnology Academy teacher from Enochs High School and another teacher involved in the PacRimX project) about upcoming changes at Skoolaborate, events planned for PacRimX, the upcoming exchanges, and new projects that might be integrated into our regular curriculum in Modesto utilizing virtual world technologies. Scott Kuykendall (Chaperone for this next Kyoto exchange) asked why I was going into work when I was out on furlough days? I replied “Because this isn’t work“.

I have had so many experiences as part of this project over the past few years. I have made new professional relationships with people from around the world involved with education and virtual worlds. I’ve been given the honor of speaking at many different conferences and being published in many journals, magazines and newspapers as part of this project (an honor I share with my partners in this expanding project). Chris Flesuras has had as many opportunities in Japan, and withi their media.  Most recently the project was featured on a national TV show in Japan (blog post and video here).  Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to be one of four participants in the final podcast of Rezed before they handed the project over to the RezEd community (and my friend Peggy Sheehy was one of the others participating). You can join the RezEd community for free at their website. Once you have a login you can listen to podcast #45 to hear what we discussed with respect to the future of RezEd and virtual worlds in education.

My son Corey in Japan with his host family (Japanese teacher at KG)

One of those “Wow” moments of my life was when I got invited to speak to a small group of 50 at NASA about our project with Japan and was able to take one of my sons (Corey) to also participate in the event. The group included NASA officials, high ranking military officers, people from various government and educational institutions, and people working in virtual worlds. NASA has taken notice of virtual worlds and their educational potential (as has the military). The dinner conversation that first night was one of the most eclectic I’ve ever had on virtual worlds and education.  The NASA report from this event can be downloaded from here)

The experiences my sons have gained from their participation in this project, the way their future plans for careers and college have changed because of this involvement, and the fact that one son (Corey) visited Kyoto last year and another (Mark) is going this year (the third, Bryan, decided to go to Germany this summer instead of Kyoto) makes this all the more valuable and rewarding as a father. And the fact that my youngest son already has plans to go to Kyoto when he is older (he’s in sixth grade now) shows how the enthusiasm is contagious in my household (he’s been the elf at the past two Kyoto Christmas Gift Exchanges, and has come to the past two joint summer schools with the KG students).

Friends from NASA Workshop (from left: Ron Creel, Bruce Damer, Cathy Arreguin who copresented with me, Cory Trevena, me, and John Patten from Sylvan School District in Modesto)

With discussions that have been going on in my own district over the past few years, and conversations I’ve had with educators from all around the world on the direction and future of virtual world technologies and education, this may even eventually become a major part of my career and in education on a larger scale. I made the decision to enter education many years ago to help make a significant change before retirement. I had children and hoped that I could help to affect change in their lifetimes (and hopefully their school years) in the way students engage in learning. I’ve partially done that with my older sons, but only to the extent of this project and virtual worlds. Now I have another six years to try to take it to the next level with my youngest son. And I hopefully have another 15+ years to do it in a much bigger way in education in general before I retire.  One of my other passions right now centers on textbooks and ebook devices.  My Virtued blog will get back on track after the new Apple Tablet launches later this month.  This technology shift will start in a big way in the next two years, more on that later.

My hope is with the current economic crisis in US schools that these technologies are given more attention and consideration as alternatives to physical schools, physical classrooms and printed textbooks, and that others in education embrace these technologies to supplement curriculum, enhance education and engage students in their learning. I love this stuff and count myself very lucky to be alive at this time and to have this job, and to be involved in these types of projects. It’s definitely something to wake up and go to work for every morning (and to sit up late at night working on into the wee hours of the morning, as I log off now at 3:30am).


2 responses to “Life (and education) Changing Experience

  1. mimi muircastle

    Thank you for taking your time to write your story – it is inspiring, fascinating and really gives your readers a glimpse into the future of education in virtual worlds.
    Having become involved in Second Life during the past year, I am completely intrigued with the ways teaching in a virtual environment like SL has opened previously unimaginable ways to deliver content and allow students to interact with the content.
    I hope you continue to write your story – I will follow it – avidly! As an educator of 40+ years, I am now hoping to get to teach – again – in a virtual world – I do not want to miss out on this amazing opportunity!
    Again, thank you for telling your story.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story.

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