Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder!
I’m always a little dumb struck, by what we have so far achieved on the Oceans Project, and it always makes me smile, to think that this whole project, was really inspired by a student that I met at public school back in January this year.
Pause for Thought
I didn’t really get to know Ani, until the summer. I didn’t teach her class in the Russian sector, in fact I think I only went into their class once in the whole time that I was teaching there. They were awful! It was not long after I had started at the school, and suddenly found myself to be the ONLY English teacher at the whole school, and pretty much the only English speaker full stop. I was one day ushered into their class and told in Russian to teach them them. There to seemed to be about thirty of them, mostly teenage girls and a few gangly looking boys going through an ‘awkward’ stage in their life. They were noisy, spoke only Russian or Megrelian, had no books, and hadn’t had a teacher for about three months apparently. They had no interest in school, let alone learning English. There was one boy in their class, who would follow me around school, begging me to teach him English, and his English and keenness was fantastic, and I really felt sorry for him being in this class of students who appeared to have no interest in anything but each other. Had I have been introduced to them formerly, and prepared something, or had a Russian speaking Co-teacher, then perhaps we would have got off to a better foot, but I was just angry that I had been removed from my usual class, which I had planned a lesson for, in fact I planned the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory project for them, and suddenly I had been dumped in this class of teenagers I had never met and could not communicate with, let alone have a hope in hell of controlling. I don’t remember meeting Ani on that occasion, or any particular children from that class, probably because I was just overwhelmed!
I knew early on, that I wanted to try and do some team building and self esteem work with the children at school, and I wanted to try and encourage them to make connections for themselves, and to make friends with children from the other sector. AT first I was only teaching in the Georgian sector, but my School Director was keen for me to work with the Russian sector, particularly since it was previously a Russian school. I didn’t really understand this fully at first, and I was a bit annoyed at having my classes switched by the Ministry part way through, especially having planned this whole Charlie Project and working hard to get the kids at a set standard so that we could work with Nikoloz the Film Director to make our own Charlie Film. It was an ambitious project, looking back, but I knew I wanted to do more than just turn up to school and let my co-teacher do all the teaching, with me just showing them youtube videos on my laptop. If I was here to teach English, then I wanted to be active, otherwise life would be very dull.
So, I came up with a decorating project that we could do over the summer. It wouldn’t cost anything, I was happy to put my own money into it, and I would have a chance to improve the learning environment, instil some personal development into the kids, as well as some English lessons, but in a way that would be far more fun than somply learning grammar from a text book.
The teachers thought I was a little crazy at first, and told me time after time that no one would come, and that if they were a kid, they wouldn’t give up their summer to come and decorate their classroom. I made fliers, and sent a note home to every parent, in English, Georgian, and Russian, and asked for donations of old paint, brushes, old furniture, old books, or anything we could use to decorate the classroom, as well as a nice parent to donate some food and drink for the hungry workers.
I had become a little disillusioned by the negative attitudes of the teachers I had worked with, who had in general, always been very supportive of my strange new offerings to the classroom and learning environment. But I felt sure that they would come round in time. As the date drew nearer, I also started to doubt whether anyone would come, but I told myself that even if one child came, it would be a bonus, and even if they didn’t then I was more than prepared to decorate the classroom myself, and then to do another, and another. If it got trashed in September, then so be it, because it was worth a shot at least.
We ended up with an average of around 12 students every day, and they even came in over the weekend, and the parents would call to see if they were coming home any time soon. We had a lot of fun, and the classroom has apparently stood the test of time, and the class teacher, who said that they would destroy it, has also really noticed a change in them.
Ironically, it was the kids who saw me through the hard times that summer, especially when he heard that school would close, and it would now be a Ukranian school. It looked like all the teachers and the School Director would lose their jobs, students left, and I had a really hard decision to make. I’d grown really attached to the school over summer especially, and had invested a lot of energy, and was just starting to see positive results of all my work since January. So, I made the huge decision of leaving the Ministry programme and taking up a full time position as Geography teacher at my current school. I don’t regret that decision ever, and it was definitely the right thing to do.
But, over summer I had got to know that naughty Russian class really well, and they were the most dedicated, reliable, and hard working students I have ever met in my whole life. A far cry from the bunch of yobs I had initially taken them for when I was told to just teach them something. We had a lot of adventures together over summer, visited places in Tbilisi, talked about the foundations of the Oceans Project and what things they would like on it, and everyday they got better and better at English, and I learnt so much about young people, about them, and about their views on the world. I changed! And suddenly , we had a respect and understanding of each other.
I went swimming with them, and met their parents, who took me on outings, and we just talked and talked about the environment and about Georgia. They were so proud to show me things, and I guess I had not expected this bunch of noisy kids to be so involved and protective about their environment, and I had totally misunderstood them. On first meeting Georgian children, I could never have envisaged taking them out of a classroom environment, because I thought they would be a liability. But seeing them out in nature, they were totally and utterly different. Calmer, and more responsible somehow, and actually trust worthy and organised. I think this really sank in properly when I saw my twelfth graders counting out a wadd of money that they had collected from each student in their class, and then divided it up into the bus driver’s wage, petrol money, entrance fee to the sight we were visiting, and money for other stuff just in case. They were working together and were focused and responsible. One of the naughtiest boys from class, stood at the front on a microphone and became a very competent tour guide, and another of the normally awful girls, organised everyone and food. They had gone from gangly teenagers to responsible and considerate adults in the space of 1 second! How could that be???? No kid in Britain would be able to manage in the roles that these kids were, nor would we ever consider them mature or capable of such a thing, and to do so would be totally irresponsible.
They were kind and caring whilst we out, and what was more funny was that the teachers didn’t bring food, and didn’t do anything because they knew the kids would LOOK AFTER them! Role reversal entirely!!!!
When Teacher Becomes Student
I learnt a lot that summer, and most importantly I learnt that young people have far more ability and we need to give them more credit than we think they deserve. If we listen to them and make time to try and see things from their view, it opens up a whole new world of possibility. And from that, I suppose that is how the Oceans Project started. I asked the kids what they wanted on a project, and I used what connections or experiences I had to try and fulfil those needs and interests. I knew that somehow my education now had to start from them, not from me, not from educational policy, but based on them.
I know too, that I had totally not thought about or really appreciated them, and I forgot to ask them what their life is like. This probably came about from one of the 11th grade students in my Georgian class, a nice young lady, who would sometimes look disinterested, but was also smart and sometimes would work hard, but was also happy to play about and spend quality time with her friends too. As I got to know her, I started to ask her questions, and we started to talk about the differences between our cultures, to the point where I started to wonder who was really the teacher and who was the student here. She felt strongly that a student has to learn to respect a teacher. Its not a given, but if you treat young people as equals then they will respect you back as an equal. Authority does not make people believe or trust you. I actually agreed with her, by the end of the conversation, and what she said totally blew my mind, as it was so different to the societal values I have been brought up with. And I had a massive respect for her, and for other young people after that.
Over the summer, I was less of a teacher, and became more of a friend I think. The children started to open up to me more, and the students who had previously never uttered a word at school in class, suddenly became the funniest little chatterboxes ever. The problem was, that they were just too shy or afraid to speak to me in English, but when they realised that I didn’t know Russian or Georgian, they had a desire to teach me, and through teaching me, they also started to gain confidence in speaking English and understanding that it was OK to make a mistake and that their grammar didn’t even have to be perfect.
Oceans Project Now
So, the Oceans Project has and always will be a reflection of my experiences with those children and at that school, and I will always have fond memories of that period of my life. So, it makes me proud every Saturday, and now even just seeing their messages and conversations with other project members on facebook, to think that this was also started by a seed that my student Ani planted months before the project officially began. Every week I notice little changes in them. In bisy language, posture, communication, confidence, friendship, and I think that was perhaps even more evident yesterday after not seeing them for the two Saturdays that I have been in London.
There were a few things yesterday that made me feel really proud of everything that has been achieved on the project so far, and I’m really proud of my team mates, who really stepped up to the challenge and have raised the bar even higher now in terms of the teaching and leadership element. I was terrified about taking my eye off the ball by being in London, and although I trust the staff, it was still scary not to be present with my baby for the first time since it was conceived. To put it entirely into someone else’s hands, and to be away marketing it for all to see and to scrutinise for the first time publicly! I had no idea how it would be received, or what changes would be made in my absence.
I’ve also made the very difficult but necessary decision to step back from the teaching side too, and to now focus my energy on the areas where I am needed most at this time, and to start to take on my role as Project Director far more seriously. I’m still present on Saturdays, but now I am free to see the overall session, than than being in the thick of things and missing out on the interactions with our ‘Oceans Ambassadors’.
But I think, that this week was our best session yet. The Team Leaders are so much more confident, and they seem to be buzzing and happy now that they have each found their feet and their role on the project, and they really get the overall view of the project that I have had since the beginning, but which was hard to explain in words. I think, they now can see that, and the potential for the future, and they have also grown to trust me a little too. Before it was not always clear, why I was doing things in a particular way, but I think now they get it and we are also a stronger and more cohesive team. I’m still not perfect, and the project has not been perfect, but we have dealt well with everything so far, and are now more confident in everything and each other.
The Ambassadors are also more settled and consistent, and on the whole are turning up regularly and on time, and are starting to pay more attention during sessions, rather than doing the Georgian thing of talking all the time and answering cell phones. They are taking on responsibility now, and have great ideas, and know that they have to work hard, just as we are, if they want to succeed. They are learning that if you want something in life, you have to work hard for it, and if you miss a deadline then its your loss. Many of them haven’t confronted deadlines before, and its never been an issue, but now they are realising that they need to meet them. I love how they communicate with other on our two facebook pages, one a closed group, and one a page open to everyone
They are all communicating in English well, which is vital given that its their only shared and common language, and slowly the more quiet students are also starting to join in and are getting better at giving presentations and talking in public. One or two are just really painfully shy, and I know that building them up will be a big process, which will be the greatest achievement post expedition.
I was totally amazed yesterday, to see that two of the boys that I was previously starting to have doubts about, have actually become two of the best behaved Ambassadors on the project, and are now focused and working really hard, and this has reportedly also been noted in their behaviour at school and in class. Two of the teachers from my previous school are also bringing their children on the project, and both of them have been really teary when seeing how much the project is doing for the children, and every time they see me they just thank me non stop. That is such a huge compliment, as these two teachers were skeptical about the decorating project at first, but soon came along when they saw how happy the children were, and have been supportive of the Oceans Project since the off, and now tell everyone about it and how amazing it is. They were perhaps two of the people I would not have ever managed coming on board with any project, let alone something as complex and big as this one! And that really does make life fantastic, and if there is anyway at all, that I can get them on expedition with us, I know that it would be an incredible opportunity for both of them, not just as teachers, but also as individuals as neither of them have ever had the opportunity to travel abroad, or really to meet foreigners before now. Both have told me what a difference the project has made to the young people from their school, and how this has had a knock on effect in their classrooms, and that really touches me.
It was so cool, to be able to feedback, even just some of the news from our UK trip, and I love it when the kids inundate me with questions and ideas for the project. They totally get it now, and are really committed to everything. They have been slow to make friends with new students, but probably the most impressive students are the ones from the toughest backgrounds and who know less people, as every week they just blow me away. The children from the refugee camps, and the orphans. They just seem to get taller and taller and more communicative every week, and their presentations are just awesome, and really inspire the more affluent kids who don’t always appreciate everything or open their eyes in the same way.
Massive Thank You to Nikoloz Films
Yesterday, I was blown away by Film Director Nikoloz from Nikoloz Films, and he really does understand what we are doing here on the project. And yesterday, what was really great was to see that my team members, who perhaps couldn’t really see how film making connected with the environment or expeditions, totally had a light bulb moment and for the first time, really understood how important his part in the Oceans Project really is.
It might not seem obvious at first, and perhaps I haven’t even thought about so openly either as I just kind of assumed that everyone knew, without giving it a second thought. Film is a brilliant medium for educating young people on essential life skills and about the environment, and about going on expedition with Earthwatch. In Georgia, it is quite normal to talk when the teacher is talking and to talk during a conference, cinema, or theatre visit, but its not acceptable behaviour in many western countries. In order to prepare the Ambassadors for Earthwatch expeditions, we have to teach them about typical British or American social etiquette, particularly if they are going to be working with bones on an archaeology dig, or are tagging sharks in Belize, or walking through the Amazon Jungle tracking monkeys. They have to learn that there are times when you can talk and do what you want, and that there are times when you just have to do as you are told, and without argument or question. This is hard for them to understand or to follow through, but each week they are getting much better. They have never been on an expedition before, and so this is hard for them to comprehend sufficiently. But they love films, and they are all interested in being the next Steven Speilberg or whoever, because they are rich and famous, and above all they are cool! They have all watched ad love films, so they can relate to them.
Nikoloz has been fantastic in teaching them these things, and one of the things that affects him on a daily basis is working with film crew from Georgia, LA, and Britain who whilst all having similar film making techniques, also have very different cultural expectations of what it is like to work on a film set. It is a massive headache, and potentially the biggest problem for a multi-cultured film crew, particularly when time is money on set, and you need everyone quiet and to do exactly what you tell them. So, to get them used to being quiet in class, to follow instructions, and to prepare them to work as future film makers, he says ‘quiet on set’ when he wants them to stop talking. This is far better and has a lot more impact than just telling them to be quiet, and reminds them that there is a reason not to talk. They are usually not talking because they are rude, but because they are genuinely excited and haven’t really learnt to control their emotional outburst or feelings, as they have always been brought up to be free and to go with them. Its a new skill for them, and with practice they are getting much better. It may seem like a small thing, and trivial, but potentially, these Ambassadors are going to be meeting foreigners, who have no concept or expectation of Georgia or Georgians, and so this will be their first encounter. If they go on expedition, and cannot be quiet when told, they will affect not just the project, but Georgia, and the attitudes towards young people and allowing them to go on such expeditions in the future. this is a really big deal for me, as they are the youngest people to go on Earthwatch expeditions, and this is the firs time that a Georgian has been on such an expedition, so there is a lot at stake for the future. Coupled with the fact that they have English as a first language, its a demanding task.
But Nikoloz, is doing such much more than that. He is helping them to becoming responsible and professional citizens. He is taking them through the entire production of a film, not just the cool stuff, but the nitty gritty too. He set them a deadline, and they were asked to write a story that could be made into a short film. Most missed the deadline, but those who met it, submitted their stories to him, and he chose the best one that could be made into a film.
At the first meeting, he got them to stand up and introduce themselves to him, one by one, in English, and to say what they wanted to do when they grew up. A simple task, but with massive implications, and probably the first time that they have voiced their dreams out loud, and some of them were really nervous, especially to speak in English. But each meeting is another tiny step, and the results are remarkable.
This week, he wanted to know who was interested in being a Producer of the film, and those who were, now have to meet together on Tuesday, and then on Thursday and have to present a sales pitch to him. He got them thinking about funding for the film, how they would raise money, and talked them through two great Film Producers, Steven Speilberg and Jerry Bruckheimer, both of whom had to work their way up the ladder of success:
The Sales Pitch
So, the challenge for the Oceans Ambassadors Producers this week is to come up with a 2 minute sales pitch, one person doing it in English, one doing it in Georgian. They have to dress and behave appropriately, and really sell their idea to Nikoloz. If they are successful then he will invest $500US in their film, but they have to return it to him with a profit if their movie is successful after its premiere.
Once they have perfected their pitch, he will introduce them to some other movie makers from LA as well as potential sponsors. They need $10,000 to make their film. Then they will hold a film premiere and invite people to it. Each week he will work with a different department and they have the choice of about 20 different roles, and each week they will meet at his office or go for coffee:
1. SCREENWRITER 2. PRODUCER 3. LINE PRODUCER 4. PRODUCION MANAGER 5. DIRECTOR 6. 1 ST ASSISTANT DIRECTOR 7. 2 ND ASSISTANT DIRECTOR 8. DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY (CAMERAMAN) 9. 1 ST ASSISTAN CAMERAMAN 10. 2ND ASSISTANT CAMERAMAN 11. PRODUCTION DESIGNER 12. PROP MASTER 13. COSTUME DESIGNER 14. WARDROBE PERSON 15. EDITOR 16. BOOM OPERATOR 17. COMPOSER – MUSIC SUPERVISOR 18. MAKE UP ARTISTS 19. GRIP & ELECTRICS 20. SOUND DESIGNER 21. VISUAL EFFECTS 22. CASTING DIRECTOR
They even have to plan out and budget for things like bottles of water on set, which is around 300-400bottles for a three day shoot as filming will take them a little longer than normal. And they have to think about their budget for everything, where they can get this money, and what things they can get in kind or in exchange for advertising, such as bottles of Borjomi or Nakhtari in exchange for promotion of the film, as well as the branding of the film, not over promising, and honesty.
Its a fantastic part of the project, and the Ambassadors are learning some essential life and business skills, in a way which is both fun and practical. When they finish this film, they will be able to enter it into film festivals, children’s film festivals, and competitions around the world. And the hope is that they will transfer their film making skills to wildlife film making, and that they will make films whilst on expedition with Earthwatch.
Everything that they are doing, is the same as we are doing in terms of the Oceans Project, particularly in terms of publicity, branding, Producing, and raising funds and PR, and this is the best way of instilling into them this sense of team, and having to have a ‘Dream’ that ‘Works’ and going from ‘Dream to Screen’.
There are already so many opportunities making themselves available for our Ambassadors, and I hope that with a little financial investment, our first generation of Oceans Ambassadors will making us even prouder of them than we already are. They have a massive potential, and its going to be an incredible adventure to follow each and every one of them over the next twenty years or so, and to be able to say that I had a small part in their destiny, or in helping to get them that first foot on the ladder, and Nikoloz is just fantastic in that, and they really look up to him and aspire to be like him. I’m so happy to have met Nikoloz through IMDB over Christmas, and to be able to keep a hand in film in someway, and I’m encouraged when I think about the next generation of film makers in Georgia. Nikoloz wasn’t able to pursue his dream, until he went to film school in LA aged 30, and many of the Georgian film makers and I initially fell in love with and which got my attention about Georgia, had moved to France to make movies as there was little opportunity for them in Georgia.
But to be a part of a project like this, helping the next generation of Georgian film makers, and to be able to show some of Georgia’s amazing scenery through our film, made by our Ambassadors, is just brilliant, and I like that the project is still driven by that initial desire, from the kids, in not writing them off, but in giving them the tools to move forward and to learn to follow them and to be their student somehow.
I know the road with the project is going to be a long, old , tough one, but I still feel incredibly honoured to be a part of the Oceans Project, and hope that in time, others will also feel the same way, and will feel as proud as I do about the Oceans Project, and our young Oceans Ambassadors. And I want to especially thank Nikoloz, for investing his time, energy, and money into the project too.