Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi street art randomly found while walking across the city

First of all: we loved this city.

The capitol city of Georgia is a paradoxical mix of old and new, familiar and foreign.  Since this was our first visit to a post-Soviet country, we didn’t really know what to expect before we arrived. It was absolutely a memorable trip, full of new and interesting experiences.

We tend to travel fairly blind, without doing a lot of research before-hand, and Tbilisi was a joy to explore with the group of friends we came with.

Right from our first steps out of the airport, we felt welcomed and comfortable. Customs and local staff are friendly and helpful. Cell companies offer free sim cards & $5 4G plans.

We loved the feel of Central Tbilisi, where shopping districts, café-lined streets, and modern art parks are neighbored by very roughly-finished high-rise construction.  There is wealth here, but also austerity.

And we also enjoyed the countryside, which we traveled through on a day trip to Armenia (a trip in more than one way).

Food

Pickled veggies & bread – SO GOOD

We arrived to our apartment in Tbilisi hungry. None of us having any idea of where we were, where to go, or what we wanted to eat, we did some quick googling-while-walking (thank you, cheap and easy data plan!) which led us to a restaurant in our neighborhood. We stumbled in, a starving, travel-worn, somewhat-smelly, too-sober group of eight with no reservation.

Our only desire was for edible food – any kind. And beer, of course, or wine. As our group tumbled in through the doors to the restaurant like a Three Stooges octet, we were greeted by white-jacketed waiters, a coat check, and table settings with severally-sized spoons. We almost backed out, but the staff there were so lovely and so welcoming – and our starvation so immediate – that we had no choice but to sit and puzzle over the menu.

We ended up trying everything.

Our server took great care of us, and she and the kitchen staff ordered and walked us through an extremely satisfying meal of stuffed breads, soups, wine, cheeses, meatballs, dumplings, and sauces that I never learned the names of. All delicious, and all very familiar while also undeniably foreign. We loved it, and that was an amazing entrance to the culinary experiences of Georgia. The manager took such good care of us that as we were leaving, she apologized for not having one specific Georgian dish on the menu, and recommended a nearby place to try that tomorrow.

80% of my calorie intake while in Tbilisi came from meats, cheeses, and wine, and it was glorious.  I am absolutely a glutton while on vacation, and I never say no to something new that looks good.  After all, when am I going to be back here again?  Diets are for home.

We like to walk when we visit new cities, and one of the reasons is that we get to check out the hundreds of cafes and restaurants as we walk by (and stop in).  Our daily plans were minimal, amounting essentially to walk across town eating, drinking coffee, and sampling local beers & wines until we get to X landmark.

Meat skewers, asian-style dumplings, khinkali (meat-stuffed breads), sausages, soups, and kababs are delicious and easy to find.  Many restaurants serve their own home-made wine in pitchers in addition to bottled stuff, which was fun to try, honestly not too bad, and very cheap.

Our apartment

As our driver pulled up to our apartment building, we hesitated at the blank concrete, exposed rebar, and dangling wires that decorated the entryway.  The apartment was on the top floor of a 13-storey apartment building, and although the photos of the apartment looked nice, the exterior of the building was everything you might expect a half-completed post-soviet apartment block to look like.

We’ve seen this before in other places: South/East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, southern Europe – the practice where private interior spaces of buildings are decorated and well-maintained, but the exterior public faces of buildings are completely neglected. Some cultures put a very low value on the outside appearance of their homes.

Having no option but to head in, we found an elevator whose exposed metal frame and cold-war aesthetic sparked discussion on whether to walk up 13 floors with our suitcases. We accepted the test of faith.  The closet-sized elevator allowed us to get upstairs in three separate trips.

Also, something new for us: a banged up metal box in the elevator requiring payment for the ride – just less than the equivalent of 4 U.S. cents, each way.

We held our breaths as the hamster cage of an elevator ushered us clanging and jerking to the top of the building. We tried not to imagine the growing volume of space between our bodies and the ground below.

It took time, but I grew to love this elevator.

Thankfully, the interior of the apartment was in stark contrast to the public front of the building (the 13th floor foyer and hallways were also unadorned concrete, with exposed wiring, dangling lights, and immediate need of a good sweep).  Clean, modern, and decorated with a clear sense of design (and a somewhat-foreign color palette), our hill-topping penthouse apartment rental offered a gorgeous view of the surrounding city.  It was dark when we got to the apartment, so the city lights were out in full effect.

Daytime view of northern Tbilisi from our Airbnb

After dropping off our bags, we went out for the dinner I mentioned above.  Some of us thought to take the stairs down to the street because the elevator wouldn’t carry us all at once (and to save the 3.7 cents).  

Remember the unfinished nature of the building?  Yeah.  Turned out that the stairwell was unlighted, of rough cement, with no handrails, and littered with debris.  Large openings at each landing offered windy, glass-less views that seemed more than marginally unsafe in the moonlight.  We took shifts using the elevator.

The city

The city at night from the Tbilisi Tower

Tbilisi is easy to get around, with a developed transit system.  Subways and buses are easy to use, and Google Maps transit tools make you feel like a native. 

It is also fairly walkable, and exploring Tbilisi by foot was rewarding.  We spent days exploring cafes, restaurants, street art, and oddities almost everywhere we went.  My phone says we walked about 30 km in the week we stayed in Tbilisi – not bad.

Tbilisi is an old city and both large and small architectural artifacts of its past are easy to find.  Probably the most famous landmark is Narikala Fortress, which sits high up in central Tbilisi overlooking the Kura River which winds through town.  Frankly, I wish access was more restricted, as little care is taken to preserve the old stonework, but it was fun to climb up the walls to enjoy the view.

A view from the top of Narikala Fortress

Another common destination is the Dry Bridge Market, which is a flea market filled with art, toys, jewelry, and lots of miscellanea.  Lots of really cool stuff here.  Here is my souvenir from the trip:

An expired Soviet passport I bought at the Dry Bridge Market

Overall, we really enjoyed our week in Tbilisi, and I would go again. English-speakers are sometimes hard to find, but we were able to get everything we wanted with patience and smiles. Lovely people.

Transformative Learning Technologies

Those of us old enough to remember the early days of the internet (and before!) have seen the transformational power of technology on society.  Some days, it seems that everything has changed; on other days, the writing on the wall just has a new font.  We’re still human, doing human things in human ways.  Love in 2019 is the same as in 1989, conflict and disagreement are the same, and we aspire in many of the same ways. 

New technology should be used to leverage learning, to transform how learning happens.  More often than not, cell phones or laptops are used in classes as a way of automating processes, making things easier or smoother – and that is fine.  I’m happy that my ELL students have immediate access to Google Translate!  But is this transformational?  How is a student using Translate in class any fundamentally different than having a paper dictionary out on the desk?  It’s faster – yes – but is that it?  Can we really say that learning has been transformed?

Sometimes I see something in classrooms that makes me think Aha! – something that is impossible without modern tech.  A Youtube video, for example, or a Ted talk on the projector.  Surely this could never have happened pre-internet!  But is that right?  Haven’t teachers used videos to supplement their lessons for decades before Yahoo! was a thing?  Having billions of videos at the touch of a key certainly adds to the depth of what teachers have access to – but is it transformative? The basic learning structure is often the same as it’s always been.

When I look around many classrooms, I see essentially the same classroom environment in which I learned as a child in the 80s and 90s.  Largely teacher-driven, with time for small-group and individual work, but with teacher-chosen and directed lessons. Maybe a video to supplement.  We have yet to remove the trappings of the factory output education model. 

I have used technology pretty extensively in my teaching practice – going so far as to go paperless, one year. It can do great things, and can help organize, streamline, and simplify in many ways.  And it can feel good in the moment.  Having a group of students collaborating on a shared Google Doc can give a taste of something different, something impossible without technology.   Bringing in a really good Ted talk can inspire students and teachers alike.

But so what?  Are learning outcomes greater if students collaborate on a shared doc than if they write their ideas on huge sheets of butcher paper?  Are the fundamental models of learning changed by showing a film to your students?

Educators who bring in technology in hopes of transforming the learning in their schools are working from a false hope that modern tech can make everything better by itself. Instead, teachers should focus on how new technology can fundamentally change the way students learn.

One such way is by expanding the interrelations between students. When I grew up, we could only realistically collaborate with groups of about 4 students – and we had to be sitting next to each other, for the most part. One new thing that modern tech allows is for students to work across the classroom, or in another classroom, or even another country. John Hattie’s research on Visible Learning shows that cooperative learning leads to improved learning outcomes, with an effect size of .40 (having potential to accelerate learning beyond the norm).

Ultimately, new tech should change the way students think & learn – not just change the way they receive information.

Fortunately, there are some amazing resources online to help teachers be the best practitioners they can be! One such resource is a blog by Katie Siemer, Talk tech with me. Check out this post of hers on selecting the right tech tool for the job.

Hattie’s research shows that the impact on learning of tech in classrooms is a mixed bag. For instance, one-to-one laptops, often a key marketing point for private schools, shows an effect size of .16 (likely to have small positive impact on student achievement). It’s clear that just putting the tech in front of the students is not enough – students learn through engaging lessons and strong adherence to best practices.

Media Literacy Education in the Misinformation Age

Fake News isn’t a new problem, but it is a rising problem.

It’s a problem in which interest has waxed and waned over the centuries and gone by many names: yellow journalism, clickbait, hoax. Here’s a write-up on some fake letters published by Ben Franklin in 1782 in London to influence peace negotiations.

Donald Trump has said that he invented the term Fake News, but even if that isn’t true, he did undeniably popularize the term.  We might owe him a bit of thanks for that.

Prior to 2016, who was talking about Fake News? Not many – and in a sense, this change may well be a net positive to us, because even though discussion was limited, our media was nonetheless filled with half-truths and outright lies. Honest reporting may still exist, but it increasingly drowned out with ‘curated truths’ and biased info-tainment – and this trend has been escalating for decades.

Although some people were talking about modern media lies the in pre-Trump era (Jon Stewart is a famous example), we lacked the pithy branding that “Fake News” provides.  Donald Trump, by branding the problem so neatly, has made our media misinformation problem easier to talk about – and people are definitely talking about it.

All over the world, politicians, reporters, entertainers, and everyday people are talking about Fake News.  There are some very different ideas about what media might be Fake News, but I see it as an overall good thing that people at least agree that it is a problem, and that they are talking about it.  Until that happens, nothing can be done to fix it.

For teenagers, the idea of Fake News is something that they have grown up with.  It’s a normal part of the world for them, and many can only hazily remember a world before then-candidate Trump popularized the idea of fake news.

As teachers and educators, information media literacy matters.  If a democracy in the 19th century relied on a literate, engaged, and educated population, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, then a democracy in the 21st century requires citizens who understand how much of what they see is false – this is a defining aspect of media literacy in our time. Nothing can be taken at face value; everything must be questioned.

Media Literacy education focuses on the development of critical thinking and assessment.  Our students learn to ask key questions and how to do research to make up their own minds on the truth of an issue.  They quickly learn that everything is biased, and how to discover sources of bias and use that knowledge to weigh the value of different perspectives.

Our children accept that Fake News is a real thing – and it is easy to see that they are right.  But what’s most troubling is how truly difficult it can be to tell what’s real and what’s fake, and this leads to an even larger problem: if it takes too much work to tell the difference, then many people will just give up entirely without trying.

To prevent this, we need to actively train this generation of students, and each subsequent generation, with the skills necessary to tell true from false, real from fake, truth from lies.  It is absolutely true that there are powerful interests in the world putting their resources into polluting our media world with lies, conflict, and misdirection – we need to answer their efforts with our own.

Media Literacy education should focus on the deep analysis of current topics and articles.  There is constantly something in the global and local news that can be used to hone our students’ skills, and lessons are made all the more rich by being topical and relevant.

Media Literacy education should also focus on informed inquiry through research and practical questioning skills. Teach our students to question everything, and how to find answers to those questions.  These core, foundational skills are transferrable to many areas of life.

I’ve taught Media Literacy as a high school elective course, but its principles can be integrated into many core subjects from elementary school on up. We owe it to this generation and others to give them the tools that they will need to successfully navigate the misinformation age.

slowly going somewhere

In 7th grade, a short story of mine was read in front of the class as an example of the exact type of writing that one wanted to avoid, if one wanted any respect whatsoever as a writer.

We were supposed to write sci-fi stories, and since I had recently read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I took a comedic approach to my storytelling, filling my pages with lines-long acronyms and initialisms that I found (and find) hilarious, but that my teacher found terrible enough to be used as a cautionary tale.

I still think fondly about that story.

Many years later, I became an English teacher. This was possible in part due to the fact that good writing teachers need not be good writers (although it helps to be able to fake it), and over the years as I’ve thought back to seventh-grade, my feelings about my sci-fi tear-down have stuck with me.

Mrs. Whoever’s cautionary tale of writing has become my own cautionary tale of teaching, and she taught me a critical, unintended lesson: that teachers are often wrong, and their mistakes can linger for decades. One skill critical for successful teaching is empathy – you need to know how your teaching will be received by your students.

It turns out that teaching is complicated.

After grad school, where I learned some of the tricks one needs to teach writing (or at least to be able to fake it), I took my bag of tricks overseas, where I settled in Korea. I lived in Seoul for 7 years, married my wife, met my son, learned a lot, played a lot, and added to my bag of teaching tricks.

One of the great things about teaching-tricks-bags is that they can always hold more. I taught at Asia Pacific International School in Seoul, and I was fortunate to have leadership there that encouraged me to grow, to learn, and to try new things. There, I practiced developing student agency, and I pushed the boundaries of what it means to give students choice in their work and to get them self-invested in their learning.

After Seoul, I moved with my family to Kuwait, where we worked at the American School of Kuwait. We lived there for five years, and a lot has happened to our family in that time. My son started school there; he was 3 years old when we arrived. My wife earned her Masters in School Counseling and became a professional educator; I became a Literacy Coach, earned my admin credential, and became Assistant Principal. I built a desk out of wood I scavenged from construction sites.

I am happy to look back on my time in Kuwait and see how far we’ve come as a family, as individuals, and as professionals. We’ve made life-long friends here.

That said, Kuwait is a mixed bag. It’s hard to blame the teachers who arrive in August amidst 50C weather, 80% humidity, and dust as far as the eye can see, who say “nope,” and head out at the first opportunity.

We are leaving Kuwait now, for Mexico. It’s our turn in the expat life-cycle, constantly churning with comers and goers. My son is turning 8; although we have traveled quite a lot and Liam has seen many places, Kuwait is the only home he remembers.

That is strange to me, and bittersweet.

I often wonder if we’ve made the right choices for our son, but I think that all you can do is make the best choices you can, and hope it all works out. In keeping with the theme of this blog, when I take a moment to look around, I’m happy to see where we’ve come, and excited to see where we go. 

México, ¡te veremos pronto!