The USA: A First Time Visitor’s Perspective

A few observations from my first trip to the USA for ISTE 2015. 

Please click on the links to view my photographic journey through Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York City. There are many great shots that I couldn’t fit into this post.

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Brooklyn Bridge, NYC

 

1) As a rule, Americans are a friendly people. 

Whether it be on the train, or on the sidewalk … I was genuinely impressed with the warm welcome I received from complete strangers, especially in Washington DC. In a strange sense, I felt at home there. Sadly, my experience wandering New York City was a little different (see below).

 

2) America is an amazingly culturally and religiously diverse country.

To put it mildly, the sheer cultural and linguistic diversity I experienced through my travels in the USA were breathtaking. Wandering the streets, you could find food outlets from around the world, and hear more languages than I’d care to name. I loved wandering the Chinatowns in DC and NYC, and the meal I had in Little Italy (NYC) was one of the highlights of my trip.

 

3) Americans like building monuments to their past presidents.

As an Australian, visiting the national monuments in Washington DC was somewhat surreal. The thought of erecting massive Greco-Roman inspired temples for our past leaders is just unheard of here. That said, the Lincoln and FDR Memorials were simply stunning. As a child, I grew up reading stories about these leaders, and to visit the sites I’d only seen in books was an incredible experience.

The war memorials were a much more familiar sight; however, I could have done without the crowds of tourists waving their selfie sticks around. I hate selfie sticks … 

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Jefferson Memorial
Jefferson Memorial

 

4) There’s nothing wrong with Amtrack on the East Coast (unless you ask an American!)

I found my friends’ looks of shock and horror upon my mentioning that I was catching Amtrack between Philadelphia – Washington DC – NYC) quite amusing. While there had been a tragic accident on the route several weeks before I travelled it, I loved my experience on Amtrack. It proved to be a fast, and relatively stress-free way to travel between the major cities on the East Coast. It also helped me avoid unnecessary encounters with the TSA.

The train stations were attractions in their own right – true palaces celebrating the glory days of train travel. There is nothing quite like the iconic Grand Central Terminal in NYC, or Union Station (DC) here in Australia.

 

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30th St Station, Philadelphia

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5) Most Americans only dream of experiencing Independence Day in the national capital. 

When we celebrate our national day here in Australia, in my not too humble opinion, the best fireworks in the country are held right here in Perth, my home city. That said, I specifically arranged my US travel itinerary to ensure I could fulfil a dream of experiencing the Fourth of July in Washington DC. I was so glad I did.

After standing for hours in the pouring rain on Independence Avenue, the sun came out to shine on the 2015 Independence Day Parade, a richly colourful and musical celebration of the American people and nation. Later in the day, I joined thousands of people on the South Lawn of Capitol Hill to listen to the A Capitol Fourth Concert, before watching the fireworks burst over the Washington Monument. It was worth coming halfway around the world for!

 6) Americans have a love affair with loose change.

When I went to Qatar a few years ago, the locals’ dislike of their equivalent to the 50c coin meant that the one or two coins I collected during my trip became instant souvenirs. Fast forward to my travels in the USA, when I collected a bewildering variety of loose change of all shapes and sizes, so much that I wasn’t sure how to get rid of it! I ended up bringing home a pile to give to my Grade One students as souvenirs.

 

7) To survive in New York City, tourist mecca (hell), you need to behave like a New Yorker.

I enjoyed exploring the sights and the amazing museums of New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Top of the Rock were worth every penny; and I loved the opportunity to see Penn and Teller live on Broadway. I took a Circle Line cruise (buy the Premier ticket), took a Photo Safari with NYC Photo Safari (recommended), and enjoyed the wonderfully informative Walking Tour of The Chelsea Markets & The High Line.

That said, I quickly learned that to survive in New York, you need to pretend you belong there. You ignore the traffic signals, walk very quickly everywhere, and try to avoid tourist hellholes i.e. Times Square & the Staten Island / Liberty Island Cruise terminal. You don’t make eye contact, you ignore the people shoving “bus tour” pamphlets in your face (even at 11PM), and just keep moving. This was not a particularly pleasant experience.

I dressed like an office worker, and tried to get off the beaten track.  I was glad I did, because I was able to discover a little of the true New York by escaping Manhattan, where I explored the beautiful, leafy streets of Brooklyn, and soaked up the night-time skyline views from Hoboken, New Jersey.

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Pizza dinner (by the slice!) in Hoboken, NJ

 

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8) America is the home of the local train station / street entrepreneur. 

In Washington DC, it was not uncommon to come across local street sellers flogging bottled water for “one dollar, one dollar”. Their sales cry will remain with me for the rest of my life. 🙂

I was advised to keep an eye out for the “stupid tourist tax”, but I was lucky enough to have brought my own water bottle with me (best conference souvenir I’ve ever purchased). When it rained, which it seemed to do often, umbrella sellers would miraculously appear out of the woodwork, taking up positions outside subway exits to catch the commuters caught in the rain. I normally carried my own umbrella, a gift from a friend in Philadelphia, but I wish they’d been at the Capitol South Station on the day I got caught without it – when I squelched my way home in a torrential downpour.

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Eastern DC, after a thunderstorm.

 

9) Everything is bigger in the USA

I was warned prior to my trip that American food serving sizes were big. I honestly didn’t realise how big until my first night, when a dear friend and her husband took me out for pizza. They were planning to pay by the slice … and when I saw the size of the said ‘slice’, I understood why!

While I couldn’t afford to eat out often, I loved the food choices I encountered on my travels. The spaghetti meatballs and cheesecake in Little Italy, the roast beef “sandwich” I had at DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal Market (Philadelphia), and the meals I shared with @cpatsero in DC and @bwileyone in NYC were highlights of the trip. And yes, serving sizes were significantly larger than I’m used to in Australia!

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10) Where ever I went, I met fellow Australians.

It would appear that Australians are a well travelled people. I ran into my fellow countrymen everywhere. I had a fellow Perth local, who I’d never met, join me for the ISTE Philadelphia PhotoWalk, and I joined a group of Aussies for the Independence Day Parade in Washington DC. I even met a few Aussies on a rail replacement bus in NYC as I was making my way to the Staten Island Ferry.

Be warned America, we seem to be everywhere!

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11) Baseball is interesting … for about the first hour and a half.

Baseball is OK. It’s a sight better than American football, which as a passionate Australian Rules Football supporter, I can’t quite bring myself to call football. Attending a Phillies match with friends was just priceless. With terribly sore feet, I was grateful we didn’t stay until the end of the match.

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12) Keep to the right! 

Not only do Americans drive on the “wrong” side of the road, the whole keep to the right is embedded in all aspects of daily life. You keep to the right side of the train station escalator if you’re standing. Oh, and those escalators travel in the opposite direction to what I’m used to here in Australia. Some of them were rather impressively long …

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13) American houses are big, often two storey, and use a LOT of wood in their construction.

This may be normal for Americans, but as an Australian living in a bushfire prone climate, it was really different. I loved staying with friends in Long Island and Philadelphia, and their houses were really beautiful (all protestations from a certain New Yorker to the contrary).

 

14) Parking is at a premium in NYC. In fact, driving in NYC is a nightmare …

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15) Farmers markets & urban regeneration – bringing life to the streets of Washington and NYC

Wandering Brooklyn and Washington, I loved coming across farmers markets and street markets. Much of the varieties & produce I saw are not available in Australia.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the pedestrian spaces and urban regeneration projects in NYC, including the Flatiron Plaza & the High Line. They helped make the city that little bit more liveable.


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15) For my amusement, a collection of street signs …

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I’ll be back.

Apparently San Antonio is nice.

If I can afford it …

#ISTE2015: The most emotional, yet inspiring conference I’ve ever attended

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Photo Credit: @TeachingSC

After a journey of some 30 hours and over 18000km (11,603 miles), I arrived in the United States for my first ever ISTE conference. It proved to be an incredibly emotional, sometimes overwhelming week. Despite the very best advice I received in the lead up to the event, I soon discovered nothing can quite prepare you for a conference with 20 000 plus attendees, over 1000 vendors, and nearly a 1000 workshops and presentations.

In trying to tell the story of my ISTE2015 journey, I’m going to focus on some key themes and experiences which stood out for me.

The power of the Unconference

Arriving in Philadelphia on Saturday morning with my good friend @lparisi, the weather turned nasty – and very wet. Forced to scrap my planned photo walk and city orientation, I immersed myself in the Hack Ed Unconference. Joining halfway though the day, I started meeting people I knew online, some of whom I’d been following for years; and joined group conversations about topics which interested me. I was less thrilled with the after party (I am not your typical party person), but meeting @lynnrathburn and her colleagues there made it all worthwhile.

Global Connections and Collaboration

Judging by the responses to our poster sessions, and the Twitter feed for several big Ignite presentations, connecting and collaborating globally was of interest to many attendees. I thoroughly enjoyed the Global Educators Brunch, hosted by @globaledcon and @VIFLearn; and the Global Education Day event. The brunch was made all the more special as it was the first time nearly all the #globalclassroom project leaders and organisers, from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and all around the United States, were in the same room. Most of us were meeting for the first time after over four years of working online.

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The Global Education Day was interesting, but its most important aspect was the people in the room. To sit alongside and converse with global educators who have inspired, guided, and helped make me the person I am today was an amazing, and very emotional experience.

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Coding and Makerspaces

I must admit this is a particularly big interest of mine at the moment, as I am trying to advise my school on the future direction of our ICT program. I am quite keen to delve into robotics and Makerspaces, and I loved the chance to explore the Maker and Coding playground events at ISTE. I played with Cubelets, shared my experiences with the MakeyMakey, searched for information on LittleBits, Squishy Circuits, and collected as much information as possible about 3D printing. I have plenty of pics, and some big ideas which I’ll be taking back to school.

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The opportunity to share my story & expertise in global education and iPad integration

When I applied to present at ISTE last year, I was well aware that the organisers accept less than half of all applications. I submitted proposals for the Global Classroom Project Poster session, an iPad Creative Challenge Workshop, and joined another poster session focussed on global blogging and the Student Blogging Challenge. To my surprise, I was accepted for all three – which was unusual to say the least!

The two poster sessions were incredible learning experiences, and I thoroughly enjoyed the informal, conversation based format – even though two hours proved utterly exhausting (and a little overwhelming). My workshop was a challenging experience. With just five registrations, four people turned up on the night. One left shortly after it started (I have no idea why), and one gentleman was deaf! Among the challenges was trying to run a group collaborative session with just four people, and working with American Sign Language interpreters to ensure my deaf colleague found the session valuable. I received positive informal feedback in the session, but I’ll admit it was probably the most challenging presentation I’ve ever given.

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Stories from The Global Classroom Project With Lynn Rathburn (USA), Heidi Hutchinson, Betsey Sargeant, Louise Morgan, Robyn Thiessen (Canada), Tina Schmidt, Barbara McFall, Anne Mirtschin (Australia), Michael Graffin, Julia Skinner (United Kingdom)
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Global Blogging – With Tina Schmidt (USA) and Julia Skinner (UK)

Thank you for the memories! 

Perhaps the greatest, and most emotional element of this conference was meeting Twitter friends, new and old, from all over the world. I lost count of how many hugs I received, and I won’t get started on the selfies :P. I had my first, second, and … who knows how many selfies at ISTE!

While sadly not all of my #globalclassroom PLN could attend ISTE, I was deeply indebted to those who made the trek, especially those two dear friends who drove 25 hours (each way) to come and see me. I hope I was able to make that incredible roadtrip worthwhile for you.

Dear @LParisi, thank you for picking me up at the airport in NYC, and the lift to Philadelphia. Your kindness, hospitality, and relative calm in the NYC traffic were deeply appreciated. I still maintain you have a very beautiful home – all protestations to the contrary :). (Please pass on my regards to your husband – it was a pleasant surprise to find a fellow photographer after a 30 hour trip to the USA. )

To @MrsSchmidtB4 and family, thank you for your warm hospitality. I still can’t quite believe that I was helping a “local” navigate Philadelphia, but I couldn’t have managed to see the city without your help :).

To everyone I met, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You made this conference one I will remember for many, many years to come.

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2013: “Spreading My Wings”

CC BY-NC-ND by Michael Graffin
Summer’s Night on the Corniche. CC BY-NC-ND by Michael Graffin

It is hard to believe that a wonderful year has come to an end. My thinking, pedagogy, and attitude towards teaching has continued to evolve, and I suspect the full implications of the events and connections of 2013 will only become apparent in the years to come.

Looking Back

Its time to reflect on the defining moments of 2013, a year of exploration, learning, and new opportunities … a year where I “spread my wings”.

Five Years “On the Road” 

Much to the horror and disbelief of some, I’m a relief / casual teacher by choice … It has taken me nearly 5 years to feel like I’m starting to master this very challenging role, yet I’ve already outlasted many of my graduate teacher colleagues. I’ve learnt my lessons through the “school of hard knocks” (literally and physically), and I’m a better teacher, and a better person for it.

I’m so much more than “just a relief teacher” … I’m a presenter, writer, learner, and emerging global education leader … with the true privilege of growing together with an amazing group of online educators around the world.

Proving a Point (#WLPSict)

While I only worked in the #WLPSict role for a few weeks, the experience enabled me to prove to myself (my harshest critic) that I had what it took to be a competent, innovative ICT Integration teacher.

It was only a taste of a role I’d like to explore further, but it gave me the freedom to experiment and learn in a supportive collegial environment. Despite never returning (a painful story), this was a fantastic learning opportunity, one which I look forward to repeating elsewhere in future.

Becoming a Presenter & Keynote Speaker

Mrs Warner, my high school English teacher, once remarked that teaching was an unusual choice of profession for someone with terrible public speaking skills, but I suspect she’d be very proud of me now.

In 2013, I gave over 9 presentations, including my first keynotes (for the CONSTAWA Dinner & iEARN Social Media Panel), first international workshop, and first presentation at a local school development day. It was also the year where I returned to where it all began, at the Reform Symposium eConference, and the year I had the opportunity to co-present a workshop with Kerry Muste, one of our Global Classroom Lead Teachers.

Building on my work with The Global Classroom Project, I contributed my thoughts, stories, and expertise to a wide range of magazine articles and research publications this year, and with another article due for submission in early February, 2014 looks set to be a busy year.

Taking Flight … Literally

This was the year of my first international trip (and plane flight) in over 20 years. Landing in the dusty, hot Doha airport at 5AM local time was the culmination of much planning, and deeply appreciated encouragement from iEARN Australia, an organisation I am proud to be a part of.

As those who followed my #RoadtoDoha posts and photos at the time already know, Qatar was an ideal destination for a first time solo traveler, and a photographer’s dream. I still get slightly emotional thinking about my time in Doha, for it was a truly life changing experience – both for me as a person, and as an educator sharing my story on the world stage.

So, where to from here?

2014 promises to be an interesting year. The experiences, learning, and new friendships of 2013 have helped me glimpse a potential future beyond relief teaching, and I am starting to consider how to implement some exciting new ideas. I’m in no particular hurry, because 2014 marks my return to postgraduate study, as I begin my Post Graduate Certificate in Religious Education at a local university, with a view to starting my Masters in 2015.

In other news, I’m planning to travel to Sydney for the Flat Connections Conference in June 2014, and am looking forward to spending 2 weeks in what I have heard is an amazing city. I am also hoping to attend the ACEC Conference in Adelaide, but am still weighing up the details and costs of that one.

I don’t know what 2014 holds for me, but I’m looking forward to finding out … One step at a time.

 

Two Weeks in Qatar (#RoadtoDoha Part 4)

How can I put into words the experiences of the past few weeks? … The sights, sounds, smells, landscapes, and diverse people of Doha … The excitement, the passion, the learning, and emerging friendships of the iEARN conference?

The truth is, I can’t … I was told this trip would change me, and perhaps, it has … in ways I’d never dreamt possible.

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Going Global

I am a global educator, committed to learning with the world, not just about it … Yet, this was the first time I found myself practicing what I preach. Coming here to #iearn13 was a huge risk, but a positive one … and I have loved every minute.

In what follows, I am going to try to reflect on my experiences of the past few weeks, as I sit here in the hotel lobby farewelling friends, old and new, as we slowly return to our respective corners of the globe.

#RoadtoDoha Part 4: Exploring Doha, a city of hidden beauty.
Yes, it was often above 45C, and this place is NOT pedestrian friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but my walks through the souqs and old Doha provided a fascinating glimpse into the life beyond the hotel and conference walls.

My feet were killing me, true, but walking enabled me to see Doha in a way which most tourists don’t. It’s the little things …

Walking past the local mosque, listening to the call to prayer …

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Discovering the little local supermarkets and general stores, frequented by the expat labourers and local Qataris …

And, let us not forget the (insane) traffic. Having never been to India or China, Doha traffic was an experience in itself.

As I tweeted early in the trip, the national musical instrument of Qatar is the car horn, and the national pastime is attempting to swerve one’s way through traffic jams – aka driving like a lunatic.

Cars drive on the left side of the road here, which was unusual for the Aussie, who forgot this critical fact on occasion! I swear my guardian angel worked overtime, because despite the occasional close scrape, I survived my 2km walking radius for a whole 6 days!

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Exploring Doha

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I was lucky that my first hotel was in the centre of old Doha. It meant that I could explored the local souqs, corniche, and Islamic Art Museum at my own pace, taking the time to immerse myself in the local environment, food, and culture. I was also blessed to find an honest private taxi driver, who took me on a guided tour of Doha, and helped make the trip so special.

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What surprised me was, quite simply, was the friendliness of the people. Yes, I was in a foreign country, half a world away from home, but I always felt safe, welcome, and accepted – even while out amongst the late night crowds enjoying the relative coolness of the Corniche (seaside promenade). Perhaps that comes from the rather unique situation in Qatar, where about 90% of the population are foreign nationals.

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Documenting another world

Here in Doha, there are certain social rules and government regulation regarding photography; however, I have quite simply had the time of my life here – documenting my first international journey. All I can do is provide a glimpse into what I’ve captured … You will have to wait until I get home to delve into the full portfolio.

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Packing my Bags & Travelling the #RoadtoDoha

The past few weeks have been pretty busy, and now the journey I’ve been preparing for – is just days away. Flying out on Sunday night my time, I’ll be landing in Doha, Qatar on Monday morning next week.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect – I know it’s going to be hot, dusty, and very different!


cc licensed ( BY NC SA )  flickr photo shared by Sam Agnew

I’m travelling with an open mind …

This is my first opportunity to experience the world beyond my home city and country, and I’m looking forward to exploring and soaking up the experience. I’ve bought tickets to a few cultural events, and my iEARN conference preparations are now complete. And my bags are (almost) packed.

I’m told that this trip will change me … I just hope it will change me for the better.

But for now, the #RoadtoDoha beckons …