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

The first 100 days

Nov 20, 2014

Today is the hundredth day of my learning journey in my Humphrey Fellowship year, so it's time for a small recap.

The most important, the most impressive, the most powerful experience that I've gained here is meeting people - people from all the six continents, people so different in so many ways, yet so similar, so kind, so friendly, so helpful.

Emerging technologies come next. Learning from experts is absolutely priceless. It feels great to be a student again, especially here at Penn State where I have access to all the books, journals, articles and databases! A whole new world opened up to me when I got my student PSU ID.   All it takes to borrow a book or an article is just a click. In a semester a student can borrow up to 200 books and keep them for the whole semester! If only I had  time to read all of them.

What I still haven't learned is thinking in English. I'm still waiting for that click to happen to make me think in English spontaneously .. and speak it fluently so that the words come easily, naturally, magically. Come to think of it, this doesn't happen when I speak my native language, either, so obviously I'm not endowed with the gift of gab. Maybe I  should have kissed that Blarney stone when I was in Ireland some years ago. Writing is different, sometimes easy, sometimes not so, but always somehow fluid, rolling, teeming with words and thoughts.

Week 14: Brown bags

Nov 18, 2014

Brown bag lunches are very popular here at Penn State. A brown bag lunch is an informal meeting that takes place over lunch. It's usually an informative session about a topic that is of interest to faculty and students. They can bring their own food, usually packed in a brown bag, but sometimes the food is provided for the participants. I went to my first brown bag in September when all the Humphrey Fellows were given several minutes to introduce themselves and the work they do to the College of Education faculty.

This past week I spoke at two brown bags and I'm speaking at another one this Friday. In two  of them I spoke about Croatia to the staff of the Corporate Controller and I think they liked my talk and I hope I was a good ambassador of my country, especially as some attendees told me after the presentation they would like to go visit Croatia. I spoke about, I think, unusual things, like what coffee means in the life of a typical Croat, the secrets of lace-making from the island of Pag, the lighthouses, the sunsets, the wooden toys, the Dalmatians, Zinfandel and those beautiful Chicagoan Indians on Horseback by Mestrovic, to mention just a few.

In today's brown bag for the Teacher Leadership Faculty  I co-presented with Bart Verswijvel, Education and Communications Officer from the European Schoolnet in Brussels. He joined us via Webex and was so kind to stay with us during the whole session, even though, unlike us, he didn't get a brown bag.  Bart and I talked about the eTwinning network and how teachers are using it to launch projects, connect with their peers and develop professionally.

I also gave two webinars for Croatian eTwinning  teachers. It was wonderful to speak to so many enthusiastic teachers who wanted to learn more about Lifelong Learning on the eTwinning network and the Skills of the 21st Century. Those were the first two of the three webinars that I'm leading as a Croatian eTwinning ambassador in November.

The most emotional and the most cherished moment of the past week was about eTwinning again: I won the first prize for my last year's eTwinning project Coursera Kids in the national eTwinning awards competition. My project partner from Greece, Lina Kalliontzi, also won the first prize in the same competition in Greece! So this must mean that the project was really great! What we did was rather unique. We enrolled our students in a Coursera MOOC and guided them through this fast-paced course. The MOOC was in fact a project within an eTwinning project, which enabled the students to learn more thoroughly, more slowly and more creatively how to develop their writing skills and get ready for their school-leaving exams. The Prize ceremony was held in Zagreb and I "Webexed" in to give a short presentation about the project. My headteacher, Ms. Svea Bielen was there to receive the award and take it to my school and to my students. 
Photo by Suzana

There were also my dear friends Ivana, Suzana and Natasa. I couldn't see what they were doing, but I could hear them and I knew they were up to something fun.

Photo by Svea
Photo by Svea

Week 13: Global Leadership Forum

Nov 11, 2014

2014 Global Leadership Forum was held in Washington D.C. from November 2-6. All the Humphrey fellows from 16 campuses got together in DC. There were 171 fellows from 98 countries!

The event was organized by the IIE and there were many events we attended, such as the dream-like visit to the National Geographic Society or the grand reception at the Department of State where I met Mario Skunca, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Croatian Embassy and Maja Cakarun, 2013-14 Humphrey Fellow from Croatia.

The topic of the GLF was climate change and resilience and each campus gave a presentation. For the occasion we had  T-shirts made with a print of a photo of all of us in the woods of West Virginia and Brinda and Muhammad,  who delivered the presentation, rocked!
The GLF was also a great opportunity for us to meet with representatives from local organizations and talk about the possibilities of doing our professional affiliation in their organizations at the end of the Humphrey year. It was a huge pleasure and honor to talk about my PA with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance and Dr. Helen Soule, Executive Director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Excellent speakers were invited to the GLF. The most powerful and inspiring talks were those given by Dr. Gary Weaver on culture shock and by the Humphrey Alumni Shanta Nagendram and Agnes Igoye. The highlight of the conference was Sharing Cultures during which the fellows performed traditional songs and  dances from their countries. It was a cultural trip around the world. 

Week 12: It's ..... yeeeeeaaaaah .... Halloween!!!

Nov 2, 2014

Needless to say, to celebrate  Halloween was one of my must-do things while in the U.S. and I was lucky to have been invited not to one, but to two parties. The first one, on October 31, was thrown by Jackie, who was so kind as to prepare all kinds of things kids usually do on Halloween, like decorating cookies or putting hands in the feel box where there were some things like eyeballs, guts and some other gross stuff.

The other party we went to tonight is I think one of the most famous Halloween parties in this part of Pennsylvania!  It is thrown every year by my mentor Dr. Kyle Peck at his home in the middle of the woods. There were about 100 people there wearing fantastic creative and original costumes, there was a band playing and we were all dancing, singing, drinking, eating, chatting, it was fun, fun, fun.

with the host, my mentor Dr. Peck
Adelina, who I thank so much for giving us a ride to the party
The Fellows with Adelina
Brinda and Yosra
Yes, I was cowgirl and was wearing a pigtail
Leila and Nick
Yes, his name is Andy

Elvis, of course

Jackie Brown and the Gill Street Band
Chatting by the bonfire

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