My hero is a teacher. She has wanted to teach since she was a child. She has been teaching her entire adult life. In fact, other than her family, there is nothing Mali Bickley puts more thought, work or soul into.
So when you ask her what was the best thing to ever happen to her, it's a little surprising when she answers, "Walking out."
It was about five years ago that Mali left her class, vowing to never return. She didn't see the reason to teach anymore, frustrated by what she saw as outdated teaching methods and public policies that placed undue importance on test results, sometimes to the detriment of the children themselves. "So I left. Just walked out one day."
|Mali, Jim and the Iranian delegation|
It's nice to know you're wanted and Mali certainly was. Encouragement from her administrator prompted her to rethink her situation. But the spark that re-ignited her passion for teaching came from a completely new source: fellow teacher and mentor, Jim Carleton. Using his award-winning experience as the Information Communications and Technology consultant for the Simcoe County District School Board, Jim taught Mali how to use technology to enrich her students' experience. "That brought the spark back to my teaching." And it brought teachers and students from around the world into her classroom.
"For the first time in history, we as teachers can allow our students the chance to collaborate with others instantly and in real time." A project Mali has been intimately associated with is "Elluminate," a camera-and-computer internet exchange that enables Mali's class in Canada to collaborate with a classroom in, say, Iraq. "The ability to actually talk to and connect with other students is so powerful. No longer are some of these kids just kids in news stories; they are friends!" Mali has found that this type of interchange doesn't just enrich the education, it builds empathy and tolerance. "By having them connect with others in meaningful dialogue, we can help them develop as citizens of the world."
|Anita, Jim and Mali with Art Miles Mural|
It was Jim who introduced Mali to the International Education and Resources Network, a global network of teachers and students committed to collaborative learning. "I could see the creativity and meaningfulness of the projects and they spoke to my soul, something that was missing in my life and career." It wouldn't be long before Mali would join her mentor as co-coordinator of iEARN Canada. The two have been actively cultivating the network in Canada and abroad ever since.
It was at an iEARN conference in the Netherlands where Mali was first introduced to The MY HERO Project. "I instantly knew that I had to get my class involved." For Mali, the topic of heroism in the classroom is a natural. Her own heroes, her mother and father, have earned a place in her life, not so much because of their fame, fortune or impact on history, but for the lessons they continue teaching her to this day. "My dad is a veteran and fought in WWII. He was 18 when he went to fight in Europe, which now rings so deep within me, as I have an 18-year-old son! He was proud of his involvement in the Royal Canadian Air Force but didn't talk about the war much. He is a quiet, understated man who always taught us to do what is right for all people. There were times in his life that he did what he felt was right, not what was popular and we learned from that. We were blessed to have such a big, diverse family and my mom was, and is, the person who always keeps us all together. My mother taught us to accept everyone and to appreciate each person and that everyone has special gifts."
|Mali and class plant a tree for PEACE|
Courage, acceptance, integrity and the importance in fighting for something in which you believe. For Mali, these are more than teachings to cling to; they're lessons to share. When asked what she would say if she had the teaching world's ear for five minutes, Mali replied, "I would tell them to lay down their curriculum binders, that what is "on page 5" isn't important. What is important is that we teach the whole child."
This holistic approach to education is no better illustrated than when Mali introduced her class to a child soldier in Sierra Leone named Sidibay. Mali witnessed firsthand the eye-and-heart-opening experience it was for her Canadian students to reach out across the planet to a young man struggling to rebuild a life that had been shattered by war. Communicating with him by email, supporting him financially and cultivating a personal relationship with this young man has given them a better understanding of their own good fortune as well as their own challenges. "It's incredible when the students actually reach out to the heroes about whom they write and make that connection. To me, that has been the most rewarding part of The MY HERO Project. My dream is that one day, those kids who were in my class (and now I work with them in a Global Education club) will have the opportunity to meet Sidibay."
|Grant, Amanda, Jordan, Rachel and Mali (Mali Bickley Family Album)|
"I love when they have that "Ah-ha!" moment and change their concept of a hero. So many of our students see the modern day celebrities as heroes. I wanted to have them discover that ordinary people can be heroes, ordinary people who have made an impact on their lives; a family member who has overcome adversity; a local community member who has worked to make a difference in the lives of others."
Even as Mali says the words, you get the feeling that she's talking about someone else, some other family member, somebody else in the community who is making a difference, that it hasn't really occurred to her that what she's describing to her students; the selflessness, the determination and the courage that define a hero, can also be seen in the daily commitment of a teacher from Southern Ontario who once walked away but who couldn't stay away.
For the lives she's enriched with the gifts of tolerance, caring and fully engaged education and for the immeasurable good she has yet to bring to the world, Mali Bickley is my hero.
The MY HERO Project last spoke with Mali at the beginning of the 08-09 school year. Since then, Mali and her 5th grade class have faced a unique mix of challenges and rewards. In a recent conversation, Mali shared with us a few of their more memorable moments.
Inspired by a visit from MY HERO youth reporter and filmmaker, Slater, Mali's 5th graders ventured into uncharted movie-making territory by embarking on their own environmental short film.
With the help of a software grant from Adobe's Youth Voices program (an iEARN/Adobe collaboration), the class utilized "green screen" technology to put themselves into their own movie. Though they experienced technical difficulties at first, they remembered Slater's advice that "Sometimes it doesn't work out the first time." The class hung in there and the results are stunning: Commit to Our Earth by The Dream Team.
Mali reports that her students at W.H. Day Elementary really embraced the MY HERO Project this year. Some of them had experience with My Hero and the LEARNING CIRCLES (iEARN) and much to Mali's delight, she found that they were eager to help their fellow classmates. It's an evolution she encourages, "Our role has changed as teachers. We're no longer Saints on a stage. We show them how to use (technology) responsibly, step back and let them take leadership."
But perhaps Mali's most treasured memory from this past year was when her class collaborated with Machinto, a Japan iEARN project and the Canadian International Development Agency. Their goal was to send books to a girls' school in Kandahar, Afghanistan; girls whose education has been deliberately and sometimes violently thwarted by extremist groups in the embattled region. In a gesture Mali describes as "an incredibly moving experience," the girls each created a hand-made book for the students at W.H. Day, books that were hand-delivered by a teacher from Afghanistan. For students and faculty alike, the experience, though not exactly "text-book," was unforgettable, but then, that's precisely the lesson Mali seems most motivated to bring her students. As Mali puts it, "It has everything to do with what kind of people are going to be turned out of this classroom."
If the accomplishments of this past year are any indicator, the kind of people coming out of W.H. Day Elementary will be locally and globally engaged and compassionate, the kind of people who make a positive, lasting difference in this world; people like my hero, Mali Bickley. - dk