Tis the season ... to look back and reflect

Dec 27, 2014

It's that time of the year again: time to highlight those precious moments of the year.

Without a doubt, the pivotal event of 2014 was my Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Award.  Being selected  in a very competitive selection process as one of the 171 fellows of the 2014-2015 cohort  has been the greatest honor ever. Since the Fellowship program was established in 1979, there have been 4,800 recipients of the Award -  only 22 of them are Croatians. What's more, I'm the first Croatian K-12 teacher who has received this prestigious award. For me, the significance of this award is twofold. Firstly, it means that my work has been recognized and it proved that I'm on the right track. Secondly, it has provided me with a terrific opportunity to learn, to gain new knowledge, to enhance my skills, to meet new people, to make new friendships and to grow both professionally and personally. I'm spending my year at Penn State University together with 9 Fellows from 8 different countries and I've been blogging about this outstanding experience on a weekly basis (or so).
Every year I launch or take part in all kinds of projects with my students, some more others less successful. This year my eTwinning project in which a Greek teacher and I experimented with using a MOOC as a learning opportunity for our students won the first prize both in Croatia and in Greece! Coursera Kids was a truly unique project which enabled our students to learn how to effectively write in English, how to assess their own and their peers' work,  how to use a distance learning platform and how to collaborate successfully in international teams.

This eTwinning project wasn't the only thing that connected me with European eTwinners over the past year. Another great honor and achievement for me was being selected as one of the 5 Croatian eTwinning ambassadors. It was also an honor to be a member of a five-strong team selected by the eTwinning Central Support Service to review eTwinning project kits for the new portal.  Bart and I continued our work as expert teachers on the eTwinning platform. We developed and led two highly successful (so the participants) learning events, one on the use of social media in education and the other on augmented reality in the classroom. Just like last year, we also delivered a couple of workshops together - one online for the eTwinning ambassadors, one at the eTwinning conference in Rome (a combination of onsite and online). We also introduced eTwinning to the Teacher Leadership faculty at Penn State. I delivered a number of workshops, seminars and webinars for Croatian eTwinners. I was invited to assess some educational materials created by Europeana Creativa at the European Schoolnet in Brussels.  eTwinning Slovenia invited me to give a plenary to an audience of 300 at their national conference in Kranjska Gora.
I delivered a number of workshops and webinars for CARNet's projects School 2.0, Inspiring Science Education, Open Discovery Spaces and Modern Technologies in Education. I was a member of the Program Board of the 16th CUC - CARNet User Conference.  I successfully completed  CARNet's e-Learning Academy. 

Sonja and I organized the fourth round of webinars for seniors from all over Croatia to help them with their exit exams. The current Minister of Education was one of our guests. 
I've also had some great opportunities to travel to Split, Dubrovnik and Brussels. Since the beginning of my Fellowship Year I've been on some amazing and unforgettable trips to Niagara Falls, West Virginia, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Hershey, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. 

Last but not least, I plucked up the courage to go horseback riding and I loved it!

Weeks 17 & 18: Chocolate

Dec 16, 2014

There were quite a few things we needed to accomplish at the end of the semester. Even though the Humphrey Fellowship is a non-degree program, we are graded for our credit classes and we have to do certain tasks for our audit and sit-in classes as well.

As part of my Computer Supported Collaborative Learning I moderated three heated discussions happening at the same time on the Penn State new collaboration platform, called "CREATE intelligent collaboration". It was interesting to see how different groups coped with the same problems, how these problems made some of them feel frustrated and disheartened, but also how teamwork helped them overcome issues and inspire them to lead some great conversations.

A blog post on our Class Blog and an Exit Interview were needed for my favorite class of the semester, Emerging Technologies.

For the Humphrey Seminar, I wrote a 5-page reflection paper and took part in a panel presentation on teacher education in Croatia, Mauritius, Myanmar and Nepal. After hearing all the presentations, I couldn't but feel sad because unlike in the above-mentioned country, the teaching profession in Croatia is spiralling downwards and right now this trend seems to be unstoppable.

Our coordinators organized the second Surprise Activity for us (the first one was the hayride). We did our best to make them reveal where they were taking us, but they were tough and didn't let it slip. We had all kinds of ideas on our mind, such as the Amish in Lancaster, the Governor in Harrisburg or the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to mention just a few. Coffee was at stake, but none of us won it.

Where they took us exceeded our expectations. First we visited the Milton Hershey School, which M. Hershey and his wife Catherine founded in 1909. They couldn't have children and they felt morally obliged to give their wealth back to the community and so they founded this boarding school for orphans. Today 2000 students from underprivileged families from all over the U.S. study there at no cost to their families. We talked to some of the students and heard only a fraction of their sad and unfortunate stories and I can't even imagine what these children had been through before coming to this school, where, as one student put it, a million doors opened up for them. One of the school's alumni is the current CEO of the Hershey Chocolate Factory. Were it not for the Milton Hershey's vision and philanthropy,  he most likely wouldn't be where he is today.

The school is managed by the Hershey Trust Company. They spend about 100,000 $ per student per year and their annual budget is $ 8 billion! A percentage of each Hershey chocolate that is sold goes to this school. Now I really do have a reason to buy my favorite Hersheys.

From the Hershey School we went to the Hershey Chocolate World and from there to the Chocolate Ballroom for a dinner theater, A Chocolate Avenue Christmas. A very sweet end of the Fall Semester indeed!

Weeks 15 & 16: Feeling thankful

Dec 1, 2014

Teaching languages for me doesn't mean just teaching grammar and the skills, it means much more than that. It includes teaching about people, cultures, way of life, values, history, traditions ...  One of the lessons in my English class is always dedicated to Thanksgiving even though all I know about it is from books, movies and from what my American friends have told me or  from what they have shared on social networking sites. This year, however, I had this exciting opportunity to see what it is really like. And it totally lived up to my expectations. The food was absolutely delicious - turkey, fresh cranberry sauce (my absolute favorite), cornbread, pumpkin pie and many other delicacies.

But Thanksgiving is not really about food, it's about thanking and giving and it brings across  the amazing American hospitality also. The only people who stayed on campus over the past week were international students, but no matter how many of them were here,  they all had a chance to experience the real Thanksgiving feel in an American home or at a church or at any other gathering for international students.
A Thanksgiving invitation
The Humphrey Fellows spent  Thanksgiving with  host families. I was amazed to see how the host families who travelled to other parts of the country  and our three coordinators made sure that the fellows don't stay alone in their campus dormitories, but experience the real Thanksgiving in an American home. I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving at Dee and Richard's home and I'm thankful for that.
Thanksgiving with Dee and Brinda 
Richard carving the turkey
Fresh cranberry sauce - yummy!

I'm thankful for being a Humphrey Fellow and for meeting so many amazing people. Most of all,  I'm thankful for having the best host ever - Janis. I thank her for being such a kind, thoughtful, understanding, helpful, generous, friendly - or simply put - perfect host.

Janis, my perfect host
Want it or not, Thanksgiving is also closely connected with shopping - Black Friday, a day of huge savings begins on Thursday afternoon. Newspapers around the world simply bombard their readers with stories about people fighting to buy drastically reduced TVs, computers etc. on that day. Because we wanted to check if this was really true we went shopping immediately after Thanksgiving dinner. So there is another myth to be debunked: none of this is true! Shopping on Black Friday was a fun, enjoyable, relaxing experience of finding some nice deals and spending time with family and friends.
Humphrey Fellows shopping on Black Friday

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