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Friday, July 23, 2010

The End / The Beginning

Due to unforeseen events, I'm spending two days in Lisbon. I'm incredibly unlucky and incredibly lucky- pretty much got sucker-punched and, out of nowhere, my amazing cousin, Marina, who already saved me once by helping me to find my lost bag the first time through Lisbon, is now letting me stay with her this weekend while I wait for my flight home to the States on Sunday evening.

My last day of school went great. Class is still continuing for another week so that kids can create stories. Then they're going to have a big party where the kids will vote on the best stories (and the 5 winners will get computers), parents and special guests like the Embassy of Taiwan, STeP UP and the Ministry of Education will come, and kids will get certificates of participation. Yay!

Lesson 10 went pretty smoothly-- about as smoothly as Lesson 9. It seemed like the teachers didn't really grasp the idea of making a game. They got all the steps down- they learned that- but then they would just get stuck being, well, creative. But it's a process and they're certainly getting there.

We had a long talk about the upcoming school year and what to do. We made some solid plans, like:

  • 1x/year- Beth visits to check in
  • 1x/month- Teachers spend at least some part of the class talking about how to care for computer. Kids can write texts about it, do presentations, skits, or even have class-wide cleaning sessions.
  • 3x/year- Meetings with parents- one at the beginning of the year, one in the middle of the year and one at the end (students and government officials will also be invited for an end-of-the-year sort of party)

In terms of content, the teachers have been enjoying picking an activity each class and letting kids experiment with it over the entire class period. I thought it might be fun to give each month a sort of theme- teach three activities and then, in the final week, use the knowledge gained from those three activities to do some sort of project. I brought them back to the malaria project they did last year, having kids write articles about malaria and then go around the schoolyard taking pictures of each other pretending they have malaria and such, then adding them to their articles. Doing things that are interactive like that, that get kids moving around-- that's great.

Got the director to sign a document committing to the salary that each teacher is receiving through the Ministry of Education. That way there's no question about how much they make over the school year. There were questions/doubts (dúvidas) about that so I'm glad we have something solid to look at now.

Also went to check out the cantina where the teachers said there might be room to put the computer cabinet. And there room or what?! Apparently the school used to have a kitchen but not anymore. So there are not one, but TWO small but gorgeous rooms at the back of the school. They're dusty, but they're locked, and they could easily be cleaned out and used not only as a storage unit but even as a small computer center. It's almost laughable how perfect it is. São Tomé, man. Something about this country, it was like the XO laptop was made specially for them.

The cabinet should be finished next week. I can't wait to hear about it. I hope it's nice.

At the teacher meeting, the teachers also took a second to reflect on the past year. They were amazed, really- just as amazed as I am. They said the kids are so computer literate now, after just one year. Many of them use email regularly. Lots of them are very familiar with the Internet. It's almost shocking how much progress these kids have made. The teachers say that there is a visible difference between students in the computer class and other students at the school. It's such a huge difference that it impassions the teachers more and more to get enough for everyone else to use, too.

I would not mind seeing five computer programs at five schools. I would also not mind if we could hire five coordinators for these five schools so that we can start building a little economy...and a country-wide initiative. I told the teachers how proud of them I was. They brought the kids this opportunity and they really did it!

"No, Elizabeth," Miguel says, quietly. "We did it."

This is not the end. It is, in fact, the beginning of a new chapter. Chapter Two! The teachers are stronger and more comfortable with the computers now. We're excited to see what a second year will bring. We definitely need to get more fundraising going for the little things that we are spending on to better improve class. And we REALLY need to get some funding so we can hire some people and buy more computers.

But we know what we need. And we're going after it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aula Como Deve Ser (Class As It Should Be)

Sometimes we have bad days, that is for sure. But the ratio of good days to bad days is getting better and better. Yesterday we had an amazing class. Today we had an amazing class, too. I'm so proud of these teachers for taking a difficult subject and making the most of it.

Explaining animation was a little bit difficult for the kids (for the teachers, too). Many thought the only solution was to change the color and watch the drawing automatically color-shift. But I explained to the teachers that if the students didn't actually make something MOVE (make a person dance, a sun shine, a car's tires rotate, whatever) they won't fully understand what animation will do. So it took a couple of false starts for the teachers to actually get where they were supposed to be. But then we got some great animations going (videos to follow) and the kids were really proud.

Bunião did the best animation, with my help. He had a man with a gun, with multiple bullets coming out of the gun. Ok, so maybe in the USA this isn't the perfect picture, but we worked with it. I told him, how about we make the gun fire a bullet? So we made a picture of the man with the gun. Then we added a bullet. Then we added another bullet. Then we added another bullet. That way, when it animated, it showed a man with bullets streaming out of the gun. It wasn't particularly graphic- just a stick figure with a weapon (ok, that sounds graphic when I say it like that, but I promise it wasn't anything overwhelming), but Bunião went crazy when he saw it working. I used his animation to show the rest of the class and I think it helped them to understand. From there kids started to get more imaginative, making cars spin, people grow and change clothes, and flowers bloom. It was a really fun day in class.

The kids also paid really great attention. Just like they did yesterday. More kids seem to be coming to class again. I'm so proud of them. One of the girls, who I mentioned the other day, took her computer home again. I saw her take her computer out of her backpack. I didn't know what to do and I mentioned it to one of the teachers.

"Oh," Professora Adelina said. "When James came by at the beginning, he told her that she could keep her computer. That's why she takes it home."

"But only her?" I asked. "No other student?"


Apparently before I came along, James and someone else told this one girl that she could keep her computer forever and ever. The teachers stood there in a mixture of shock and confusion. They didn't think they could question James so they just let him do whatever. Well, the deed is done and we can't take this computer away from this girl anymore. But I told the teachers that if anything like this happens again and someone tells them what to do, remember that they are absolutely in charge of their own program. And if they don't feel comfortable being in charge, they can ask me and I will be in charge. Only listen to me, I tell them. If someone else tells you to do something, don't do it if you don't want to because they are not in charge of you!

I think when the teachers first got these computers, they were confused as to what was going on. Ok, so they get a whole bunch of computers...great, I guess, but what in the world are they doing here and why us? Nothing was really communicated to them very well, so anyone who looked like an authority figure they just listened to. I came in at a very opportune time when they were just hoping for someone to give them some direction. And in that way, we have grown together.

After class, we had a repairs class. A couple of days ago we learned how to take apart the computers. This time I taught the teachers how to reflash the computers, the alt+period command to unfreeze Etoys, and a few other things. I'm going to edit the Repair Guide tonight so that more things apply to the teachers as well, so they have them.

Tomorrow Miguel and I are going to survey the space where we're going to build the cabinet. Faia should be done with the cabinet next week. I talked to Faia about how the power strips are breaking. Miguel said that he will fix the power strips himself, and buy outlets that won't break. I trust Miguel to do the job well, not that Faia was necessarily trying to cause trouble or anything, but just that Miguel is more directly connected to this program and it makes more of a difference to him that the outlets work. I told him to go to the store, find out how much outlets will cost, bring a receipt and bring it to me tomorrow when we go to look at the space for the cabinet. Then I will give him the funds to buy the supplies he needs.

The teachers are hoping for laptops that are suitable for themselves. I have two friends that are willing to donate their old laptops to me so that I can send them to the teachers. If you have a laptop that you'd like to donate to this cause, please let me know as I am looking for a couple more (I need between 4 and 5 laptops total). I definitely think the teachers deserve some laptops that they can use for their teaching. This isn't directly related to the computer program but it sort of is. Anyway, even if the computers are used, that's ok. The teachers are willing to pay the shipping if I arrange for the computers. We're going to work that payment out when I get home.

So things are running smoothly, to some degree. Tomorrow is my last day and I already can't believe it. So much to do, so little time. But...the talk I had with the teachers today was just amazing. They really took responsibility for this project. Tomorrow we are going to have a long discussion about how to structure the upcoming school year. Today we had a talk about our responsibilities. My responsibility is to keep coordinating the class and fixing little problems as they come along, and staying in contact with the teachers via email throughout the school year. The teachers' responsibility is to keep the class going and to teach the students how to use the computer (I suggested that this year we focus less on how to use each activity and more on doing different projects that employ the use of various activities at once, that way students can have a more rounded experience. But we'll talk about this tomorrow.). The principal's job is to submit the hours worked by the teachers, which he has been doing, but the only thing is that the teachers don't know how much money they make for this extra class and would like to know so that they can keep track of their finances (this is fair).

The teachers asked me how in many countries these laptops are being used. I told them I didn't know...probably at least 30. Their eyes went wide. 30?! I don't think they were expecting this number.

I tried to explain a little more about OLPC. OLPC is an organization that makes these computers, I said. But they don't teach how to use them, necessarily. They send the computers out and then the country has to develop their own program with them. I am here because many individuals, and individual organizations, feel it necessary to accompany the teachers and give them a little bit more help in identifying how they can best use the computers and then putting them to use. When I first came last year, I had no affiliation with OLPC besides being a sort of "expert" on these computers (ok, so that was a blatant lie- as many of you know, I didn't even know what OLPC was when I first arrived, but the point is I'm an expert of sorts now). Then I joined an organization  (Waveplace) that works on the side of developing educational curricula for this laptop. Waveplace is independent of OLPC. But many independent orgs like Waveplace, some in the USA and some in the country where the program was developed, have taken these programs under their wings and have tried to develop them. And this is why I'm here.

The teachers had never really gotten this explanation, and I think it made a huge difference. Last year, I didn't really know what I was doing there either. But now that I have a more established role with this program, I understand what we're doing and what our goals are. Being able to verbalize that was as good for me as it was for them. Now we all are very certain of our history, what we're doing here, and what we must do (roles and responsibilities). The teachers understand that OLPC isn't telling them what to do anymore- it's just them and me that decide things. The computer program is to be their own.

We talked about what the Ambassador of Taiwan said, and the Ministry of Education. The Ambassador wants to donate 100 computers to five different schools. This doesn't accomplish our goal, but it's certainly nice because the computer program can be a country-wide project, which will certainly help our visibility in other places around the world and maybe even in the long term help us get more funding. The good news is the teachers are getting paid extra for their work on Saturdays, so it's not the end of the world if our Saturday classes have to continue for a while. But Miguel looked me in the eye and said, "Beth, you know how people are. We need to keep up with this issue and make sure to follow up with everyone so they finance this program as they said they would."

I told him I agree with him completely, and though I can certainly keep up with things via email and the phone, I will need their help to stop by the Ministry of Education and check in on things to make sure that the Ministry and the Embassy keep talking. The teachers definitely seemed poised to take on this role.

Can you imagine the change that would happen around this country if we could get computer programs developed in six secondary schools in São Tomé? It would be incredible. It wouldn't be perfect, but I definitely think the 100 computers in each school would affect more than 100 students. It might be directly used by 100 students but it will inspire many more. And that will make a difference. Just the idea of being able to do more with your life will make the difference.

I'm sad to be staying only one month. I am going to miss São Tomé when I leave (tomorrow is my last day already). But I do feel that I have accomplished my mission. I've talked to the organizations I wanted to talk to, I've fixed little problems like power strips and space issues, I've gotten this summer program going, and adequately prepared the teachers for the year to come. And in this way I am very satisfied. I know I will be back, hopefully every year se Deus quiser (if God wills) and I can find funding for it. It might be better to come in the winter when flights are cheaper. But I am so grateful for a bright future I see at the São João School, and in these children.

Talking with Jeff at the University of Illinois about the idea of doing a long-term study of these students after having participated in the computer program. May need to be something that waits a year, but it's certainly something that can be done. It'd be interesting to see how these computers affect students' future schooling and careers.

Like a beaming mom, I am proud.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Culmination of My Life...Over the Past Ten Months

Today is the day the ambassador is coming to visit. I'm dressed up really nice. I arrive at school about 10 minutes before 2pm, and most of the teachers and a solid percentage of the students are already there.

I think everyone realizes that today is an important day. I review Lesson 8 with Professora Arlete; she has a few questions that she wants to cover before class starts.

And then class begins.

Today is the polar opposite of yesterday. The teachers are working together beautiful...their teamwork is like magic. The kids are angels. I swear they're all sitting up extra straight today, nearly silent. When they speak, it is to ask a question. We conduct class like this for an hour, until the ambassador shows up.

The ambassador is a wonderful man who I know believes strongly in the power of technology. He likes the computers, he thinks they're cute, he's watching the class and he knows that the kids are enjoying class, too. We only have about 50 students today (out of 80 total or so), and I explain to him that because it's vacation, attendance is a little bit more lax. The students aren't part of the São João School anymore so the students that are here are here purely because they want to learn, and for no other reason.

He seems impressed by this, and things are looking up for us. I'm feeling good about our program, about the ability of the Ministry of Education and the Embassy of Taiwan to work together to achieve something really beautiful with this computer program. The Embassy is considering purchasing 500 computers, but not giving them all to the São João School, but rather 100 computers to five different schools. I explained that it would be necessary to purchase internet, train teachers, and do lots of organizations five more times in order to successfully place 100 computers at five more schools. But it's not impossible.

There are pros and cons about this idea. Obviously our goal is to have enough computers for the São João School and not any other school so that the computers can be used in the classroom, the way they were intended.

At the same time, however, our class has been quite successful, even if it has been severely lacking in computers. Perhaps if we spread out computers among multiple schools, it would spread across the country and have an even greater influence on people merely through its geographic accessibility. I don't know if this is true, but it's a thought.

Though Ned summed it up perfectly- why not let the Ministry of Education decide where the computers go? The program is going through them anyway.

So here we are, Tuesday evening. We have interested prospective funders (praise the Lord!!! Hallelujiah!!!). We have some ballin' teachers that have a great handle on the class. We have a computer cabinet in the works, so that we actually have a place where we can put our computers and their parts. We have a bunch of freshly broken power strips (already), though Professor Miguel tells me he knew that the outlets Faia and Dany had me buy were not strong enough, and is confident that he can purchase some durable outlets and fix them himself. We have the second half of our repairs class tomorrow, and a scheduled meeting on Thursday to plan the upcoming school year. I gave the teachers their certificates today, as well as their payment. I also gave Professor Miguel the certificates for the students.

But one thing we have more than anything is strength. I am confident that this year is going to go even more smoothly than the last. The teachers are confident, they know what they're doing and feel like "experts" to some degree. The only thing I have to do is keep myself coming back on an annual basis- perhaps looking into funding from Rotary or some other organization that can help pay my travel.

Boo-yah, world. Let São Tomé show you all how it should be done!

PS- By the way, the "putting Scotch tape over the jumpy trackpad" trick works like a charm!!!!!

Class - 13 July, 2010

To get a little insight on what class is like, and our fabulous students, too :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Google Game

Before class begins and for the grand prize of a lollipop, I ask various groups of students to race each other finding answers to random questions I ask, using Google. I asked this group of girls to tell me what the population of Portugal is...and Susie is just seconds away from getting the answer via a Wikipedia page she found on Portugal's geography and demographics.

Politics and Candy

So I'm walking in town and I get a phone call. It's the Embassy of Taiwan. The ambassador is going to come by tomorrow afternoon to watch our class!!!!

This is huge news, as the Embassy of Taiwan is considering funding our laptop program. I mean, this is bigger than huge. This is the culmination of a year of work, and it's all happening tomorrow.

About an hour later I'm sitting in the office of the Minister of Education, a really sweet man who sounded really pleased to hear that the laptop program was going well. His office had cancelled on us about three times up until we actually got to see him, so meeting with the guy was a treat and a half. Roberta (of STeP UP) and I basically explained to him that he has to talk to the Embassy of Taiwan himself in order for us to get funding through them. He's interested in lending us this hand and writing a letter to the Embassy right away, knowing that I'm going to leave the country on Friday.

When I get to school, I meet all of the students in one classroom. We're only getting about 50% attendance these days, because of the fact that it's summer and attendance isn't required, as well as the fact that this is the last week of campaigns (for Prime Minister, I think) and people are literally skipping work to participate in campaigning. I, in fact, got caught up in a parade today while driving my motorcycle to work. Actually, "caught up" is an overstatement, because I literally drove into the parade because I knew otherwise I'd end up like ten minutes late to class. Oh well.

So anyway I meet the kids in the classroom. And I clap in rhythm to get everyone's attention- it works perfectly- and then I grab a piece of chalk and say, "Let's play a game."

I draw the spaces for three words on the chalkboard and start our favorite game in class, Hangman. The kids love this game-- I introduced it to them last year and now they play it all. the. time.

The word ended up being "Embaixador de Taiwan" (Ambassador of Taiwan). Then I asked the kids why I wrote "Ambassador of Taiwan" on the chalkboard. No one knew. I asked if anyone had met a real ambassador before. One girl raised her hand; she had met the Portuguese ambassador at one point. I asked if anyone had met the Taiwanese ambassador before, and there was silence.

I told them that tomorrow everyone was going to meet the ambassador of Taiwan because he was going to come to our class to watch.

I explained that this past year, this class has been an example for how computer classes in São Tomé can work. I explained that the Embassy of Taiwan is interested in not only financing our project, but maybe even other projects in other schools across São Tomé. This means that tomorrow is a very important day, and we need everyone to (1) be there, (2) be there on time, and (3) be on their BEST BEHAVIOR!

This was the theme of the day.

So these are the good things. Class ends up being a disaster in all other respects. The teachers arrive 30 minutes late, then we do an hour of repairs class which ends up leaving the teachers feeling rushed because I had told them we needed about three hours of time and for some reason they didn't seem to believe me, started class at about 3:30, went till 5 and covered the joystick and about three of the first steps in Lesson 8 (or in so many words, we didn't cover NEARLY enough material). I was very frustrated. I spent my time in the back repairing some computers and came in a couple of times to basically glare at the teachers and ask them what the HELL was going on. It seemed that they had no ability to manage the class of 40 kids...even though there were about five teachers there! It drove me crazy. I thought I was working with teachers, and here they are hardly able to manage this classroom. And then they start to teach Lesson 8 and they're doing it all wrong, like, literally teaching the students to do things incorrectly!

When class was over (10 minutes later than normal), I sat the teachers down and basically said "So, what happened???" I told them if class is like this tomorrow, there is no way in the world anyone, let alone the Ambassador, would want to finance our project. It's so disorganized and was just "uma grande confusão"-- utter chaos. Professora Mirian said the reason why it was like that was because the teachers didn't practice their lessons the night before, and they will do this tonight. I told them it's so, so important that class goes well tomorrow, and all the teachers agreed. I think there are a number of things that are frustrating them-- the energy problem certainly doesn't help, as when there is no energy at school, there's usually none at home, so the teachers can't practice with their computers because they don't have electricity anymore. They are also still learning the materials themselves. Professor Miguel insisted that the confusion was just part of the learning process, and that they would get things and be able to teach them better later.

I understand that it's a process, but there's no reason why the teachers can't confidently teach material and manage their classroom. I was livid today watching class go down- teachers standing up there, letting kids go crazy, not able to control them. But I also need to remember to breathe-- these teachers believe strongly in this program, and I know that. The material is new, and there is no rush to learn it. The current students are nearly gone now. The teachers learning the material effectively is better because they will be the ones teaching it to the following 6th grade.

Professor Nélys asked me to teach the class tomorrow while the Ambassador is here so things run more smoothly. I looked him in the eye and said "I can't believe you just asked me to do that." I can't possibly show the Ambassador that we have a sustainable, working program if I am the one teaching it!

As you can see, some frustrations today. But perhaps a chaotic day today was what we needed. It might be a good kick in the pants for the teachers tomorrow. Now I know that they're going to try their absolute hardest to give a good class tomorrow. I'm not sure how many students we are going to get, but they have been told to come to class early and to be on their best behavior, not just by me but by the other teachers. Since it's the summer, I do hope the embassy understands our lack of attendance. But everything else needs to be perfect, just perfect.

Got an email from the American Embassy today-- I asked them to fund our summer program. They received the proposal but it looks like half of the proposal- which consists of my travel back to São Tomé- can't be funded since the Embassy doesn't fund travel. That's all good and well, but it looks like we're back to square one trying to figure out how to get me, the program collaborator, over here for an annual check-in!

Cross your fingers. Tomorrow is a big day for us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

So Proud

Before class, all the kids are sitting around with their computers, enjoying some "free time" before we start. It's a computer programmer's dream. The schoolyard is quiet and the teachers and students are all sitting around, on benches, on the floor, under trees, using their laptops.

I buy five lollipops from the man selling them across the street. I approach the first group of kids with laptops I see. "Are you guys on the Internet?" I ask.

"Yes, Professora." They say. I tell them that we're going to have a contest to see who can find out what the capital of the United States is. The first person to guess wins a prize.

I find a group of boys inside the classroom and tell them to look up the national languages of Belgium.

And to some girls on benches, I tell them to find out the population of Portugal. As I explain their question, one of the boys runs up to me. "Washington!!!!" He is yelling. "WASHINGTON!!!!"

That's right. The kids are learning how to Google (or maybe not Google, but some sort of internet searching). Ten minutes later, the girls all squeal, "ten million, three hundred fifty five thousand, eight hundred twenty four!"

I pass out my lollipops to the winners. Can't believe six months ago some of these kids had never touched a computer in their lives. And now they're conducting research.

Lesson 7 goes great today. The kids are picking up the material as fast as ever. There were fewer kids in class than normal- maybe 30-40 kids total- and five teachers. We all stayed in one classroom.

I was sorting through all the computers that weren't being used, doing some triage- figuring out which ones had bad keyboards, which had bad screens, etc. We definitely have a few damages but most of the screens are still usable so it's only the keyboards that need replacing, of which there are probably five or six. So anyway, I look up in the middle of class, and I see this vision that just makes me smile.

Professora Arlete is standing in front of class. Her voice is strong and powerful. She's giving students instructions on how to set up the slider, the maximum and minimum values. Then there's Professor Nélys, he's writing on the chalkboard behind Arlete, describing perfectly the process that she is verbalizing. Professora Mirian and Professora Adelina are sitting with the students, checking in to make sure they understand. Every once in a while Professora Mirian lifts her eyes and watches Professora Arlete teach. And Professor Miguel is out of the classroom. I actually don't know where he is, but you can't have everything go perfectly.

Anyway, I think to myself, my GOD I am so lucky. These teachers are not only amazing at what they do, but they're a team. They're working together. It's as if these five teachers have been teaching computer class all their lives!

In many ways, this has been a slow and grueling process. It took a whole year to get these teachers comfortable with their computers and with this program. But then, it's amazing took only one year for these teachers to be so good at what they're doing! The kids are using their sliders to make their objects go up and down. They're asking questions and having problems and the teachers are helping them. The teachers are coming to me less, asking me fewer questions. They're figuring things out on their own. And the best part is, they're confident. I'm loving Etoys because it's giving these teachers some real material. It's harder, sure, and I'm sure they're feeling really tired sometimes from all this work, but I know we would all agree that it's going incredibly well.

And the harder they work, the more they are dedicated to this program. Professor Nèlys came with me to the Ministry of Education today (unfortunately they rescheduled us again for Monday morning, but what can you do). Professora Mirian keeps asking for updates about the cabinet that my friend Faia is making for us (I just finished the design and brought a computer home so he can take some measurements. We're hoping he'll be able to finish it before I leave). And Professora Arlete is just killing it on the lessons. She's driving me crazy with excitement. And she's taking my advice to heart- she's saying things like, "make a design, any design! It can be a flower, it can be a star, it can be a tree- whatever you want!" when before she would say "everyone make a house, now!" OK, so it's not the exact opposite of rote learning, but if only you could have seen her last year, not understanding anything, getting so frustrated, not sure if she was all for this computer thing. If only you could see her now.

And now she's standing up in front of the class and so confidently explaining how to make something move with the slider, and I just couldn't be more thrilled!!!

As you can see, things are going well. They're not perfect- we haven't done any lesson planning for next year, I feel so lame for spending money fixing power strips that in the end are just breaking really easily all over again, and I really wish we had enough computers for everyone and I wasn't leaving so early in the financing process. But for what we have going, I am confident that we'll be able to get through another successful year of laptop use.

Things are slower here. It's taken a full three weeks (15 days) to cover 10 days of lessons. In between lessons we've been doing a lot of logistical work, fixing things, discussing other things. In the end, the extra time has been beneficial to us. It has helped the teachers to let things sink in better. And they are already amazing teachers-- that I did not have to teach them. They just had to learn how to use their already-existing talents in this program.

Sent a financing request to the US Embassy for us to have a summer program again next year. Cross your fingers that it works out, though we probably won't know until the end of this year so we have some time to keep them fingers crossed.

Thanks, Donors!

In the past week or so, we've raised a total of $100 from two wonderful donors. Just a note to say thank you so much and please continue to spread the word about STEP UP OLPC. Every dollar makes a huge difference!!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Not So Bad

Hey, today was not so bad!

The electrician came by STeP UP. I looked him in the eyes and said, listen, let me take your number and think about this. It seems this idea of using the internet when there's no electricity sounded really good when I thought it'd only cost like $50, but now that it's more like $250 it's seeming a bit like a money pit. I want to be very careful with the money that we spend for this project so I think I'm going to put it on hold until it's something we really need.

And something we really need, which the teachers are pretty passionate about, is a cabinet to keep our computers. I was going to buy something metal but it seems like it might cost less to make something from wood- and then I can design the thing so that it works perfectly for us.

Thinking about a relatively large case (if we lock it up, it'll be so big it'll be impossible to steal, which is the idea since it will have to be in an unlocked classroom) that is sort of like a cupboard with four shelves. The shelves are divided into three- two longer portions on either side and a small section down the middle. The small section will be where we can put power strips (I think I'm going to buy some new- and DURABLE- power strips online or in the States, provided I can get adapters or something) and the larger section is where we'll keep the computers, lined up on their side like books. Each shelf will hold ten computers, which means there will be 80 computers in the front portion, then the cabinet will extend to the back so that it is two computers deep, creating enough space for a total of 160 computers and about eight power strips. Holes in the cabinet will allow wires to run from the power strips so that you could effectively charge computers WHILE they are in the cabinet. Then there will be three large storage areas below where we can put chargers, mice, extra parts, etc.

I'm going to talk to my friend Faia tomorrow about the exact dimensions- I took a computer home so that we can better visualize it.

One of our students also thought it would be good to take a computer home. She's one of our best students and she's a really sweet girl. I know she wasn't trying to do any harm. I was suspicious of her a few days ago because I left her in the computer room by herself and she had a backpack. I knew the temptation would be too much. Today she came to class late and I watched her as she crept to the back and very slowly took a computer out of her backpack. Unfortunately for her, we spent the first hour cleaning our computers (they look BEAUTIFUL now, most of them look brand new!!!) and re-writing the numbers in fresh permanent marker, so even though she has been taking wonderful care of her computer, the number on it was worn out.

I got the marker from the computer lab, went up to her during class, rewrote the number over the old marks and very calmly whispered to her, "Leave the computer here tonight, ok?"

The look on her face was unforgettable. It was full of embarrassment and remorse. I know she won't take the computer home anymore. I know I dealt with the situation really well and I'm actually pretty proud of myself, but I still hate the fact that she won't be able to keep this computer. She's not one to steal I know this computer means the world to her.

Class went pretty well. We covered the first half of Lesson 7 before the electricity went out. The teachers...they are amazing!! They really rehearsed everything last night and were so effective in teaching Lesson 7. I was so proud. At our teacher class, I asked if they wanted to get started on Lesson 10 already or if they wanted to review anything. They asked if we could review Lesson 8. If that will help them to have a class that was as effective as the class today, then sure, we can review.

So that's what we did.

I'll be honest. When I first learned Etoys, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. It seemed hard, overly technical. But I know that content has been an issue for us in class, since we're not able to use the computers in other disciplines yet. And in that way, Etoys is saving us. We really have something to teach, and something the kids are enjoying-- a LOT! Once you get the technical stuff learned, Etoys is a breeze- and such a new and unique way to learn material.

I'm proud of my teachers. They're doing a great job. Tomorrow we have a meeting with the Ministry of Education (finally) and a couple of the teachers are planning on being there. Then I'm meeting with the US Embassy to see if we can get another summer program going for next year. If we can ensure that, man, that would help things out so much.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Things and Lesson 7

Called Roberta this morning to confirm our meeting at the Ministry of Education.

Good thing I did, because it was cancelled and she appropriately didn't tell me.

At STeP UP today I was a little annoyed with her. She thought it would lighten her image to compliment me on my shirt. When that didn't work, she worked a new meeting out with the Ministry- 9:30am on Friday. Then we'll go to the US Embassy shortly after.

The electrician came by today (he also stopped by the school to check out the wire hookup). He wants about 5,500,000, or about $280, to purchase a battery and install this thing. I don't know, is this a good idea? I suppose it would be nice if it worked. I'm getting a little worn of spending money- I already spent money getting the power strips fixed, and they're almost already back to the way they were before. They're just so fragile and they break very easily. When I'm so strapped for cash, every single dollar makes a huge difference.

On that note, we're hoping to build a cabinet where we can keep all the computers. I was going to buy a metal one but I'm thinking making a wooden one might be cheaper. We could put a lock on it. We could decide on the dimensions so that it could be a sort of bookshelf-type chest where you can slide the computers in on their side, so they're not sitting on top of each other. There could also be storage spaces below. I'm going to look into this tomorrow and maybe draft out a design, see how much it will end up costing. Money is so short, I just hope we can get the funding we need for this program to move forward.

Went over lesson 9 with the teachers today. It went really well- everyone successfully animated their creation. Good!

Class with the students was frustrating. The teachers took forever to actually get started, and then the power went out, and I had to do everything I could to keep from yelling, "You see??? If you start class so late, kids will use up the battery life on their computers, and they wont have any charge left in case the energy goes out. And that's what happened!"

Gilson came by today. He's one of our students from this past school year. He's older than some of the others. He hung around class, looking into the classrooms. He asked the other teachers if he could be a part of the class now, even though he hasn't come to any of the other summer classes. The other teachers told him he had to talk to me first. When he came up to me, his eyes were shifty. He had a visible wound on his face. "Can I come back to class?" he asked me.

"Why weren't you in class the past few days, Gilson?"

"I couldn't. I"

I basically said whatever. I told him if he comes to class from now on then yes, he can participate. He took a computer and quietly walked into a classroom. It's good to have him back.

So even though Lesson 7 didn't go well, the teachers actually understand everything surprisingly well. I know people in Haiti had issues with Lesson 7. I think it's because there are a couple of missing steps in the directions and they can get confusing for someone who is new at everything. The teachers and I sat down after class and went over a few things: One, they have got to look over these lessons before class. We talked about how the lessons seem easy when I'm around, and then hard when they're trying to teach it all themselves. I think that's why they're being so slow in teaching the students -- they're still insecure and uncomfortable. So the way to fix that is to get more secure by practicing the lessons themselves at home.

It seems like such a simple thing, but as much as I explain it to the teachers, it still seems like they're not understanding. But today when I sat them all down together they got it. Thank God.

I also passed them a copy of my funding proposal. It's time to get all of the teachers up to date about what's going on, not just Miguel (though he is certainly the leader of the group). I explained to them that if we ever get funding, it's going to depend on them to make sure everything runs smoothly-- that the money gets to the right place, that things develop correctly. I'm trying to get them to take responsibility for the program's development now -- or at least as much responsibility as possible.

Speaking of responsibility, tomorrow I'm bringing soap to school and we're having the students clean all of the computers with damp towels (thank God) to teach them all about the importance of caring for these computers. The teachers have scheduled our repair class for Friday afternoon, as we'll be done with Lesson 10 tomorrow so we'll have time Friday to get started learning to repair.

All in all, things are going well. They could go more smoothly, sure, but I'm grateful for the movement we are making. The teachers are trying so hard, the kids are loving class, and things are continuing in the long-term. And that's the most important thing!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

10 Days...CRAZY!

Class doesn't go badly today, woohoo! We did the teacher class first because students are coming to class extremely late (a feature of our summer program, NOT of our regular academic year program) and we don't feel like getting mad at them since it is vacation and all, so we had our teacher class from 2-3:30 and our student class from 3:30-5.

At the teacher class we learn Lesson 8, tests. The teachers are picking up things pretty well. They have a problem with listening -- it drives me crazy -- they'll just drift away into their project and then go "I can't do it" and it will become very obvious that the reason why they can't do it is because they weren't listening when I was explaining. Oh well. The content isn't easy and they're definitely picking it up. I explained the joystick today and was actually pretty surprised at how quickly they got it, after briefly reviewing the slider from Friday. Looks like the teachers just need to simmer and then they're good to go.

Did Lesson 6 with the students. It went well. For some reason the teachers didn't show the kids the "bounce" feature- they're having trouble with this idea of following a lesson plan and not doing things on their own or by memory. This is sort of hilarious because...they basically suck at following a lesson plan...but they are DAMN good teachers. The way they explain things to the students, I can only wish I had explained it myself that way.

We already marked the five "prize" computers so that they never get mixed up with ones that belong to the school. They have stars drawn on them and literally say "Prémio" ("prize") right on the front. We're sort of dangling them in the kids' faces and it's working like a charm. There's been no stealing, the kids are anxious to start writing their stories, and some of them have even started crafting story ideas at home. Thank goodness for contests.

Doing a lot of tying up loose ends and the like during my last 10 days in São Tomé (already, I know!). Tomorrow I am meeting the Ministry of Education with Professora Arlete and potentially Professora Mirian to talk about getting the Ministry to support our computer program and work with partner organizations to get us enough computers for everyone at the school. Seeing Professora Arlete with her students, and now volunteering to come with me to the Ministry, makes my heart swell. It wasn't easy to convince her to give this computer program a chance. She was interested but easily frustrated. She had lots of questions and she wanted to do things her way at the beginning. It took a bit to get her to warm to me. And now sometimes I feel she is my closest ally.

So tomorrow we're heading to the Ministry of Education to have the Talk about the livelihood of this program. Wish me luck.

Other loose ends we're tying up:
  • Talked to an electrician today about using a big battery to power the school's wifi when there's no electricity. Apparently it can be done and the electrician is going to do some shopping and write me up a receipt before installing it at the school. Yay for being able to use the Internet even when there's no electricity! That's almost as good as getting a generator.
  • Brought the 30 computers I brought from the USA to school today, as well as various extra batteries, a couple of broken computers and about 30 mini mice. Now we have a very nice pile of 130 computers, mice, batteries, chargers, adapters, power strips and whatever else stuffed under one of the tables in the computer lab (which has about 10 desktop computers arranged along the walls and couldn't be bigger than a closet). So our next solution is to buy a big metal cabinet with shelves so that we can store the computers there. If it's a big enough cabinet, we can simply lock the cabinet and put it in one of the classrooms (which are unlocked) rather than having to rely on it staying secure in the director's office. Will probably do some shopping tomorrow.
  • Made another appointment with Izilda at the US Embassy to see if they'll pay for us to have another summer program next year (and also pay my airfare so that I can go and check in on things too) for Friday. Wish me more luck.
  • Going to stop by the Portuguese Embassy to say hello and do some networking, since I used to work at the Portuguese Embassy in the USA.
More things...certificates are all signed by the director and stamped with the school's seal. That's good. Now just to put the names in for the students. Still need to pay the teachers. Interviewing the kids as much as I can for some good videos to get support. Just saw one of my old English students from last year tonight. THAT was a blast from the past!! It was great to see him! Nothing else going on off the top of my head. Life is good and I'm already missing São Tomé!

Friday, July 9, 2010

So much to say, so little energy

Didn't post yesterday out of exhaustion. It's been a lot of work these past few days, organizing things. Yesterday class went well. Shout out to the Columbus School for Girls who made large print copies of the halo handles for teachers to use in the classroom (see pictures at right). I wasn't able to print them in color, but let me tell you, the teachers here in São Tomé are using them and they LOVE THEM. The printouts have helped us so much to teach a large class. Way to go CSG!

I even had a chance to meet with the Embassy of Taiwan to talk about potential funding opportunities today, and it went really well. The Ambassador is a wonderful guy who really believes in the power of technology, especially in a country like São Tomé that is so distant and removed from the rest of the world. When I got back though, as class was ending, it was a whole different story. We ended up not being able to have a teacher class at all because students kept coming into the classroom making a racket, and the teachers couldn't keep themselves focused- they kept leaving the room to talk to the students and such. Finally at 5pm I just got up and told them I had to go, and left. We would have to have our class another day, because we had just spent an hour doing nothing. So it was a mixed day.

There are students that are stealing computers now. If they are stealing them permanently or if they are just taking them home for the night without permission, I do not know. But I do know that some students are bringing backpacks to school and secretly slipping the computers into the backpacks.

It's a little heartbreaking. On one hand, I thought the students understood that these computers are on loan to them for the school year only, as we need to accommodate future students, not to mention the fact that these students will be moving to a different school system next year with teachers who are untrained in the XO laptop. On the other hand, ugh, it's so frustrating that these kids are stealing the computers because they like them so much. It's so frustrating that these kids are spending three hours of their vacation, every weekday, to sit inside and work on their computers BECAUSE THEY WANT TO!

I had to think of a solution, and it had to work.

When I came to class today, the energy was not working. We were hopeful that it would return, though, so we waited. As we waited, I met with the teachers. FINALLY my missing bag came through on the flight from Portugal today, so I got the teaching materials (and clothes and toiletries) that I was so badly hoping for. I passed those out (the teaching materials; not the toiletries).

I also passed out a handout that I created for the teachers last night, which included notes about teaching these computers. I explained to the teachers that teaching these computers is like teaching an art class- there is an instruction part, but there is also a very important creativity/experimentation part. The teachers here are used to working in a rote structure, which works for them, especially when they've got a large group of students to take care of. But we're trying to stay away from the rote with these laptops. I explained to the teachers the importance not ordering the students to make a specific object or enter a specific number, but to encourage them to think for themselves, to try new things out, to have fun. I also encouraged them to let students help each other- to not stop class in order to solve one student's problem. In class, things worked better. They weren't perfect, and certainly not as efficient as I was hoping, but they were better. It will be a process, I know. But the good thing is, I feel like we're moving a foundation. It's not a temporary change we're making, it's forever.

Finally, I talked to the teachers about my solution to the stealing problem. And my solution was this:

First we gathered all of the students into one room. I have mastered the clapping exercise to make students quiet. I did this last year-- you clap in a rhythm and then the students repeat you, and you change the rhythm a few times and have them repeat you a few times, and then finally you stop and everyone is quiet since they're waiting for the next cue. This is how I manage a classroom of 100 students (though today there are much fewer...but since it's vacation time, we're not too too worried about attendance). Then I tell the students I have something important I want to talk to them about, and I just need five minutes of their time.

They were attentive.

I explained that the computers belong to the school, and that the idea is to use them for years to come. The computers that students are using right now are going to sixth graders next year, and the year after that, and years after that. They are participating in a really important program but in order to keep this program going, we need to take care of our computers. During vacation, we can't take the computers home because they're going to go to next year's students (the real reason is because the students are no longer enrolled at São João so there would be no way to track them if something happened). I told the students that there was something that was happening that was making us teachers very sad, and can anyone guess what it is?

No one could, so I continued. The thing that is making us teachers sad is the fact that there are some students, who we will not name, who have been taking the computers home without our permission. Because the computers belong to the school, taking the computers without teacher permission is called stealing. Some of the kids' eyes widened when I said that word, "stealing". I know they don't mean to steal. I told the students that the thefts are in the past now, but we need to work together to find the computers so we can keep using them. So if any student knows of any other student that has one of these computers, please encourage them to bring that computer back to the school and no one will be punished.

As to the fun part.

Starting this summer, and in years to come, we will be offering a contest for students participating in the computer program. Since we're just thinking of this contest now, this summer it will be a story-writing contest for who writes the best Etoys storybook (stories need to be 5-10 pages with text and drawings on each page, they need to be written in good Portuguese and need to have at least three animations on them). On the last day of class, we will all leave our laptops on the tables and walk around the classroom and look at the stories. Then students will silently vote on their five favorite stories on a piece of paper. The writers of the five best stories will be awarded with an XO laptop, that they will be able to keep--forever.

The kids went nuts when they heard this. FOREVER?! That's a long time.

In years to come, we can keep the five laptop giveaway going. I can see how it could be controversial- awarding this select group of students laptops to keep forever could perhaps seem like some weird gameshow charity. But I think it's quite in line with the original OLPC ideals of individual ownership. It's also a pretty big deal for the students, and an enormous motivator to do well in the classroom and to attend class in order to work on their projects.

And finally, it's a solution to stealing. Psychologically, if students understand that the computers need to be taken care of because they are simply on loan to them, BUT they also understand that they have the opportunity to legitimately own a computer themselves if they try hard enough, then I strongly believe that it will bring an end to the theft. Students are not trying to hurt anyone by stealing- they just want an opportunity. Now this is their chance to get it.

And if they're not one of the five winners, they need not despair- there are computers available for use at the national high school, and there are also going to be 20 computers available at São João for public use-- all people need to do is ask a teacher and, particularly if they are a previous student, they will be welcome to use the computer anytime during the school day.

Class was great today. Students were very excited. They were learning faster. They were laughing. I think this "contest" can be a great motivator for the students, as long as we don't put too much emphasis on it being the sole motivation for learning. Ned and I have also been talking about conducting a sociological study, following maybe 10 of the current students over a long-term period of time to see how the computer program affects them in life in comparison to other students. It would be an interesting idea to use the five recipients of computers as half of these long-term examinations.

Teacher class went well. We covered Lesson 7. When the teachers listen to me, they do great. They get distracted easily and usually one is always absent for sickness or funeral so we move slowly, but deliberately.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Etoys Lesson 3


I title this post "O.M.G.!", in response to yesterday's "O.M.G.", because it is nearly the polar opposite of yesterday.

In fact, nearly the polar opposite of....noon today.

Ned saw me over lunch. I was a nervous wreck. The iPhone wasn't working, class was not as I had hoped, things were tearing me apart. I could hardly take another minute.

And then, the sky opened up.

Spoke with both UNICEF and Voice of America about funding our program this morning. Both organizations are definitely interested in lending a hand. It will take a lot of pushing, but things are looking up for us. Even the US Embassy might be able to help if I can think of a way to rework the proposal.

So I leave things with a smile on my face.

I get to class plenty late, having been at Voice of America in the afternoon. But the teachers know I'll be arriving later and they know to start class without me. When I get there, I see some kids playing in the schoolyard, but the school itself looks empty. I saw Professora Adelina's car outside of the yard so I know the teachers are at least still here, but where are the students?

Slowly, I make my way into the first classroom.

And there I see Professor Miguel, and a whole group of students, quietly focused on their computer screens. One student looks up. He sees me. "Professora," he says, talking to me. "Come see my painting!"

This is the beauty of Etoys Lesson 3.

I go into the second classroom and it is exactly the same. Except this time the tables are rearranged so they're all facing each other. The students are equally silent, drawing. The class is nearly the opposite of yesterday. It is perfectly peaceful. The students are drawing houses, trees, sky. It is so beautiful and I am just beaming.

Everything we went through yesterday is worth these moments.

When we finish class, I try not to bother the teachers. Ok, so they haven't taught the students to draw their pictures using individual items (pressing "keep" over and over). I mentioned that to the teachers and we're going to do it tomorrow.

We also had one student try to make with his computer when it was time to go home. The kids are still pretty bummed that they can't take the computers home.

But things are peaceful. We're getting more chargers from the STeP UP office, Faia is fixing the power strips, the teachers are teaching class and the students are happy.

Drove home on my motorcycle. Really killed it...felt great. Then I fixed my iPhone. All of the stress from the last two weeks has miraculously melted away.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

First day of class, no energy, sigh

Teachers Teach Each Other Etoys

Student Interviews, Part One


If I so much as look at another computer I am going to scream.

Unfortunately I have to look at my computer in order to type this, so consider me screaming.

So the things that are most getting to me- totally not OLPC-related whatsoever. Trying to unlock an iPhone that I got for my friend Kilson here. Thought it was unlocked (EVEN PAID A GUY TO DO IT) but alas, it wasn't. So I'm $200 in the hole if I can't fix it, and I've been working on it for like 2-3 hours per day trying to get it working, and it's looking grim. So now not only am I poor again, but I look untrustworthy to him. Grrrrr.

Ok, now for the actual things.

So I spend the whole morning loading Etoys 4 to the computers. The thing that the teachers don't know is that we're eventually going to have to reflash all of the computers, and when we do that, we'll have to reload Etoys 4 again. But there just wasn't enough time to reflash 100 computers this morning AND add Etoys, so I did the quick solution and will slowly reflash in waves, a few at a time. Actually had a decent time this morning- the sun was shining, I was playing music on my computer really loud, some of my students came in and asked if they could play with the computers while I worked and I said fine so I had lots of help and definitely plenty of company too.

About half of our power strips are fixed, thanks to Faia. That was good. Energy was kicking. Plugging in 100 computers ends up being a lot more work than you think, so I really didn't have much time to charge these things by myself, but I was able to get Etoys 4 onto almost all of them.

"Almost" because a lot of the computers are not in the condition they should be in. This is why I started to get a little bit frustrated (or pretty angry) with the teachers. Some computers were missing keys, others had broken screens. I think in the 80 or so computers I worked on, there were at least 5 with screens that were just totally useless, maybe another 5 with keyboard problems, and maybe another 5 that had random problems like dead batteries, or just wouldn't start up right. So that's nearly but not quite 20% of the computers I worked on that have pretty serious problems that render them beyond use, though they do not render them unable to be fixed.

Anyway I got frustrated with the teachers because, why didn't the teachers TELL me anything? And on top of that, telling me things is not the important things. But just like the broken power strips, whyyyy did the teachers not DO anything about it? Why didn't they talk to the students? Why did they not reprimand them for not taking good care of their computers? Why did they not kick them out of the class as they said they would? It's as if these teachers are afraid of taking action about anything. They say to me, "Ah, well now that you're here, it's not a problem anymore, is it?" Why, because I'M going to do everything FOR YOU???

As you can see, I got a bit miffed. But I know these are just steps in the process. I know that. Soon the teachers will be able to do everything themselves. By taking care of things, I am showing them not to stand around when stuff gets destroyed. Not that they are used to being able to do anything anyway, because usually doing something requires money, and money is what they don't have. But at least getting them into the mindset of contacting me or STeP UP would be a great start.

So after four hours of installing Etoys 4, I take an hour-long break and go home for lunch. When I come back, the teachers have all left and the director has shut his door. And locked it. Which means, all of the computers are locked inside. We have wait nearly 1.5 hours for the director to come back and unlock the room for us. He's angry at us for having left the computers in his office if we needed them. Miguel is mad at me for having left the school without telling someone to tell the director to leave the office open (as if I had any idea that the office wouldn't be open all day long). I'm mad because I'm just exhausted of having to take responsibility for everything. And we're all bored as hell as we wait for José António, the director, come back.

So I pick up a piece of chalk and spend 20 minutes playing "Hangman" with the kids, and they have remembered the game flawlessly. They also remember "7 Up" which they request we play after, but the director gets here before we have a chance.

The next 30 minutes is pure chaos. The kids are used to having the computers themselves, so we're not used to having to sort with 100 kids about whose computer is what. So here we are, setting up power strips (turns out one of the power strips that Faia apparently fixed is NOT working), plugging computers in (oh, by the way, only about 50% of the chargers work too), and sorting out computers. The kids are unstoppable, 100 kids just yelling like crazy people. It's impossible to maintain order because my voice is drowned out by the students just yelling. They want their computer, their charger doesn't work, they have no place to plug in, they want to know if they can take their computer home today (a common question).

I lose it. I yell quite loudly, to say the very least, something along the lines of "Everyone sit down and be quiet or we will stop this computer program forever. And I am NOT JOKING!!! THIS COMPUTER CLASS WILL BE OVER!!!!!!" This achieves a manageable level of order. I know the kids are excited. I know they're not used to getting something so valuable, and they're hanging onto them as much as possible. These kids are fighters and I respect them so much for that. They have had lives that are harder than I could ever imagine. But in my classroom, I was not about to accept rowdiness, even over these laptops.

Finally, when the kids have the computers, there is a silence. Only about 60-70% of the computers are plugged in. Some students have to share with other students because there aren't enough chargers, and the computers are out of battery life (though there are more chargers at the STeP UP office, thank God). The teachers have divided the students into two classes, and for some reason divided themselves not in half but in four teachers in one room and one in the other.

But there is finally peace.

Until Miguel comes up to me and says, "So, what are we doing today?"

And I am about to lose my head right then and there. I as calmly as possible say "Lessons 1 and 2 of Etoys." He says, "actually, I'd prefer we not do Lessons 1 and 2, and just do a presentation of Etoys for the kids and talk about what they're going to be covering."

"Fine," I say, leaving the classroom.

And that, my friends, is when the power goes out.

No joke. The power goes out. And then Miguel finds me and says, in so many words, "See, this is why you need to get us a generator."

And I say "You're right. Why don't you guys write up a grant and then we can all go and try to get funding for it?" He nods. I know he's not trying to stick it in my face that I haven't gotten them a generator. I think he realizes that it's not as easy as it seems.

So we spend another 30 minutes giving class until pretty much all of the computers are out of battery life, and then, in amazing order, we are able to get the kids to put their computers in the local computer lab (a closet-sized space with about eight computers in it smushed together) so that we don't have to worry about the director anymore.

And when class is over, I say to the teachers, "Let's have a meeting instead of our teacher class." And we agree that we need it.

These are the things we talk about:

  • The fact that the computers are in poor shape. However, the teachers have at this point become adamant about letting the new sixth grade students take their computers home, just like this past sixth grade did. With class only once per week on Saturday, the students are doing the majority of their learning from home. Not to mention, if the computers stay at the school, we're going to go through the chaos we had today on a weekly basis, handing these computers out. Here's how we decide to ultimately deal with the situation:
    1. We will have three teacher-parent meetings throughout the school year. The first will be an informational meeting for the parents about the program, and about how students need to take care of their computers. The second will be an evaluation meeting in February to ask parents how things are going. The third will be a final year celebration, where students will turn in their computers and receive certificates, and parents, STeP UP members, government workers and other people will be invited. By involving parents, we can make things more clear.
    2. We will write "Property of the São João School" in big permanent marker on the computers, so that the students have the constant reminder that they will not be keeping them at the end of the school year.
    3. We will dedicate a part of one class per month on how to care for computers. This may mean doing presentations about how to care for the computers (or even what NOT to do), writing essays or even having a class-wide cleaning session with damp towels so that the computers look nicer and less dusty.
  • Miguel wants to give the kids candy in addition to their certificates at the ending party. I'm not sure why that is the case. He says it will boost morale...but I'm sort of like, what's the point of boosting morale at the END of the year? If we want to boost morale, it should be at the beginning/middle of the year. But on top of that, I don't know if giving candy is the answer. Oh, I don't know.
  • We need more chargers. I can get quite a few at STeP UP so this is not a problem in the short-term. But in the long term, we have to teach the students how to properly wrap the chargers, and while we're on it, how to take care of the power strips too (like not yanking them). However, I really don't think it's the students that are causing the charger problems. They're simply burning out. Miguel says someone local might be able to fix them. In the long term, this might be a good solution.
  • We need to plan a meeting with the director so we can talk about payment, these three parent/teacher meetings we want to hold, and next year's selection process. The teachers aren't sure how the director selected this past year's students to participate in the computer class, but they want to have some say in the selection next year, which I think is a great idea.
  • I brought about 27 working laptops with me this year. 20 of them are going to stay in the São João School on a permanent basis. That way, if former students ever want to come back to São João to use the laptops, they simply have to come to the school, ask one of the teachers and then they'll be able to use them (as long as they stay on the school grounds). As students seem to live pretty close by to the school, I think this is a totally reasonable request and a great way to keep kids interested and excited even when they're not at São João anymore.
That's it for today. My brain is fried. Sometimes I wonder if a computer program should be this much work- if the fact that so much push is involved means that the program is inefficient and, in some ways, unreasonable. There are so many details, always so many setbacks. But I think about the kids yesterday that said they wanted to be computer programmers when they grow up, and I think about how for these kids, it's got to be worth it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Oh wait, we actually need ENERGY for class??

So I arrive at the São João School at 9am sharp. We had to call the director on Friday to make sure he'd have the school open for me to install Etoys 4 on all of the computers, so I was pleasantly surprised when the school was open and ready to go.

I went into the director's office and took out the computers among the stacks there. Only six to start, as I only had five functioning USB drives anyway. I brought them into an empty classroom, a small crowd of students that were hanging in the schoolyard following me. I make a mental note to get these computers cleaned up- or, even better, to have the students clean them with some damp rags. Even one of the kids following me asked if the computers could be cleaned, because they're so dirty- that goes to show you that it's not just me being a neat freak. The computers are just covered in dust, so much that they've taken on this really nice orange-ish color. I'm not as annoyed about it as I might be, though- the fact that they are so covered in pen marks and stickers and grime shows that they have been well used, and well loved.

Then I go to grab one of the power strips that the OLPCorps had brilliantly created for the students here. They made just enough for the students- I think there are about 70 or 80 outlets total that I know about. The outlets are a little bit sketchy, to say the least -- some of them obviously do not work, as it's just wire and metal and no plastic area where you plug in. Others are obviously burnt. But I give it a shot, anyway.

I plug the first computer into the first outlet and hold my breath. It works, thank God.

But unfortunately, none of the other nine outlets work until I reach the last one. On the second power strip, one outlet works. On the third, none. On the fourth, two. On the fifth, none.

Maybe I can put Etoys 4 on the computers without plugging them in, I think. But alas- the computers are all completely drained. They all need to be recharged, and now.

And that's when I knew class would be quite different than we expected.

I think I successfully loaded Etoys 4 onto about five of the computers. However, at about 10:45am I ended up calling Dany in a rut. There's no way around it besides getting new power strips. I asked Ned how much it might cost to buy new ones. "Oh, I don't know," he says. "Maybe 300?"

300 means 300,000 Dobras, or about $15 USD, or about twice as much as it would cost in the States (which sounds about right, as things that are imported- or about 90% of all things- are horribly expensive due to importing and customs fees). I think about his power strip which has about six or eight plugs on it. That's going to cost me about $150, just to get enough outlets for all of the students at school.

Dany and I steal all of the power strips from the school and throw them in the bed of the truck. Our friend, Faia, comes too. We go directly to the hardware store, counting how many power strips need new plugs, how many new outlets are needed and how much new wire. We count about 16 meters of wire, 13 outlets (these are the plastic parts of the outlets that are ripped off the power strip, and do not include the outlets that look fine but still don't work) and five new plugs (a number of the power strips don't even have plugs attached to them anymore-- they've been literally ripped off the wire). It all rings up to 775,000 Dobras, or about $39.16 USD. When we get home, Faia offers to fix the outlets for another 300,000 Dobras, putting us at a rolling total of $54.32 USD for about seven power strips with eight plugs on each. I'm quite satisfied with this price- it's almost exactly the same as I would have paid in the USA, maybe even cheaper, and now I'm helping the São Tomean economy so I feel pretty decently good about myself.

But I don't feel so good when there are 100 students facing me and I have to tell them that class is delayed one more day because, not of lack of electricity, but of lack of power strips!

We do get some good interviews with the kids though (although halfway through the teachers let the kids go play in the schoolyard so it becomes super loud and I'll probably have to redo all the interviews all over again...BUT it was cool anyway). I asked them a few questions, including:

1. Their names
2. What they like most about computer class
3. Why they feel computers are important in São Tomé
4. What they want to be when they grow up.

Questions #3 and #4 were particularly interesting. A number of students hit the nail on the head about why computers are important in São Tomé. They didn't say anything about wanting to learn how to type or be good secretaries. They said things like, "Computers help São Tomé to connect with the rest of the world," and "Computers allow us to think in different ways so we can better our community." These are 11 year-olds that are saying these things, it's great!

When I asked what students wanted to be when they grew up, I was expecting a few mixed responses. But the kids had it all figured out. One girl wanted to be an accountant, another, a biological engineer. Two students wanted to be Portuguese teachers. A few of the boys wanted to be computer programmers/technicians. One girl said she wanted to be President. She smiled and blushed, and I told her she can do whatever she wants!!

I was particularly excited to see girls that wanted to be engineers and accountants. I haven't had the best of experiences teaching females- in an English class that I taught last year for students who were in their late teens and early twenties, the females were very visibly disinterested in school. It was heartwrenching to see them having lost their spark for learning. But these sixth graders still have that spark, and they're going onto high school. In many ways I am so happy, so thrilled. But in other ways, I feel even more pressured to keep up with them. To not let them fall through the cracks. To not let the fact that the computers are being left behind at São João hurt them.

I feel like I should go investigate the local high school and see what options there are for computer use there. Maybe I can help them grow their program a little more so students won't feel left behind.

Leaving the school, I had remembered that I rode the motorcycle into the schoolyard (perfectly normal here in STP) rather than pulling over on the road, on the other side of the street, because the road was covered with rocks. Now I would have to pull out of the schoolyard and hang a U-turn without stalling out, getting hit by a car or making a fool of myself.

I made it out perfectly. I'm really getting a hang of this motorcycle, I think.

Little failures turn into little successes.

PS- Went to TAP and apparently my bag is still in Lisbon after all. Long story short, it should be arriving on Friday. Don't ask why they were holding onto it. For some reason they thought I would be back soon and were like, "oh, she can just pick it up on her way back" without telling me. Sigh. Portugal no coração, né?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lesson 5...hellooo students!

Today was a pretty successful day.

I had forgotten when I arrived at São João that the students would be here today, not for class but in order to hear how the class would be structured in general. It was awesome to see these students- suddenly I remembered every single one of them, and they were just the same, if not six months older. And at that age, in six months, kids grow! Maybe 10 or 15 of the girls were waiting by the gate for my arrival. When I got there, they stayed by my side as I walked to the school building. It's a little bit of a power trip to have 100 kids look up at you, 100 kids run into the classroom as soon as they see that you are here, ready to begin class. I wonder what they're excited about more- using their computers or having me (read: white woman with funny accent) as their teacher. Well, whatever it is, I'm happy they're here!

Anyway, the kids run inside and we meet for about ten minutes to talk about class. The teachers designate me to be the one to lay down the law. I laugh. The “law” is that for the next month, we're meeting five days per week for about 1.5 hours each day. Next week we're meeting at 2pm but we'll most likely start around 9am on other weeks (we're beginning at 2pm next week because teachers have required exam grading in the morning). I also think that after next week the class will be extended to the regular 3 hour schedule- and we'll do a variety of fun things to break up the time. We're going to be learning Etoys and making storybooks, and at the end of the program students will receive colorful certificates in their name. But the biggest “law” of all is the fact that, this time around, the students will not be able to take their computers home, as per the request of the teachers.

This is because the students have now finished with the sixth grade, which is the last grade at the São João School. They are technically no longer students of São João, and because of this, if a computer goes missing, it will be that much harder to track a student down. For the sake of the continuation of the program, all computers need to be accounted for this summer and in September. So we have to keep them here. In pride, the teachers asked the students to raise their hand if they were continuing onto the seventh grade. Nearly all of the students besides a couple raised their hands. The teachers were beaming. I would love to know if there is actually a notable difference in continuation to seventh grade between students in this computer class and students at São João in general. If there is, that would be a powerful quantitative analysis, I would think.

The good news is that unlike the past school year, students will be meeting everyday instead of once per week so they'll be able to use their computers quite regularly. On Monday morning I'm going to go to the school to install Etoys 4 on all of the computers so that they can be ready to go on Monday afternoon. I'm debating as to if I should reflash them too-- if I don't, the teachers will have to reflash at some point and then they'll have to install Etoys 4 anyway. Some of the teachers may join me in the work, if they are available, but I told them they didn't have to if they had other things to do. I also told the students to think of their favorite parts of the computer and their favorite programs, because we would be recording little films of students showing these different things. Then the films would be used as helpful material for the incoming sixth grade to learn more efficiently how to use the computer.

I am also, as per the suggestion of Kris Haamer, going to be interviewing students on camera and asking them what they like most about the program and such. I'll take little videos of class in action in hopes I can make some sort of fundraising video.

When the students left, the teachers and I settled down for Lesson 5. A few of the students continued to play in the schoolyard- one of them asked to use my camera and I allowed her, as long as she was careful, to take pictures and videos outside while I taught the teachers inside. Lesson 5 is all about the viewer and the very first steps of animating- how to make an object go forward 10 and turn 90 at once, for example. I was pretty surprised at how well the teachers seemed to understand the concept of the viewer- it seems that they had more trouble with the actual manipulation of the touchscreen and buttons (particularly when they had to hold down shift, click and drag something) so things like drawing or just understanding the basics of the supply box seemed difficult for them. But now that they get those things, Lesson 5 was nearly a breeze. The teachers really got it, and they were helping each other. I told them that our class is going to be quite big- they've been dividing the students in half lately with 2-3 teachers in each group- so we need to put particular emphasis on being flexible and letting students experiment on their own, and also asking students that understand the material to help the students that don't understand. That's the only way we'll keep our heads above water with so many students and two teachers.

I'm interested, however, in seeing how things go with so few teachers. I know Waveplace has never taught Etoys this way so if anything it'll be quite an experiment – and certainly an important part of this is learning how to best teach Etoys, particularly under limited resources.

We talked about how we would conduct class on Monday- asking students what they already know about Etoys and then talking a little bit about what Etoys is and what it does, explaining the idea of making storybooks over the summer course, then going into Lesson 1, looking at the gallery of projects, maybe even hitting up Lesson 2 if we have time. Those are the hopes of what we will accomplish.

There are a few obstacles that I am already aware of. The first is that the fabulous power strips that the OLPCorps made are already beginning to fall apart. Only a few of the outlets on each one work. That's not going to be good on Monday, when everyone needs to charge their computers and no charger is available. We also made a stricter attendance policy. I had thought that teachers were keeping track of the students but apparently they weren't. So at the beginning of next year, we're going to request a list of students, write the computer's number beside each student's name, and then keep attendance every class period. If a student misses more than three (or four, or five, I'm not sure yet) classes, then they will be pulled from the computer program. There are plenty of other students that want to be a part of the program and it's not fair to deny them inclusion while their peers are skipping class. I thought the teachers were already taking attendance and such but apparently that is one thing that fell through the cracks, so we're going to pick it up again now.

Roberta and I went to the Embassy of the USA today to talk about fundraising for the program. When they saw the nearly $300,000 price tag (this pays for 1,100 computers, maintenance fees and human resources for the entire school for five years) they shut down. They can only fund projects that are about $5,000 maximum, and they cannot fund parts of projects. Roberta and I are looking into what “full projects” we can do with $5,000. Maybe we can get a library started like the one in Petite Rivere des Nippes, for past program participants to use after they finish their studies at São João. Maybe $5,000 will help pay for a summer program, should we continue to offer that. I'm having a good think about it, because I know there must be something that can be done.

However, it has become obvious that we need to seek our funding in other locations. Ned suggested approaching organizations that have already donated to One Laptop per Child, and showing them how successful São João has been and seeking support to continue its success. This is a great idea that I'm going to look into more.

Dany and I are going to hopefully head to an electrician next week to talk about using a car battery and an inverter to power the wifi when there's no electricity at the school. I would be delighted if we could get that moving before I leave São Tomé. The teachers are hoping for their own adult-sized laptops and I have a few friends who are willing to donate their used laptop computers, install something simple like Puppeee Linux on them and ship them over. I told them that when I returned to the USA I would look into it for them, but that I don't want to rely on other people shipping them at the moment, and they agreed that this was the safest way to do things. I wanted to bring them computers this time around but I already had so much stuff, I could hardly take any more. But they said they would pay the shipping if I mailed the computers, and that I believe I can do.

As you can see, there's a lot to be thought about these days. If anyone has input about anything, let me know. Hope everyone is enjoying July- the US Embassy is having a party in São Tomé on July 9th (just a few days after July 4, but it's because the Embassy is actually based in Gabon so they need to do their July 4 party in Gabon) for us Americans. I'm actually sort of really excited about it. Our other volunteer, Polly, left us early this morning. It was so sad to see her go! I know she'll be happy to get home though, after living here for four months! Now it's me and the boys at the house again. I'm trying to take extra good care of Ned's kitten, because Polly always treated her so well. Might as well get in touch with my mothering side while I'm here.


Please click the button below to donate to STEP UP OLPC to support the São João school's computer program in São Tomé:

Donate $200 and you will be paying for a computer for at least FIVE very special children at São João (as estimated computer life is five years). Thanks so much!

Want your donation to be tax-deductible? Send a check to STeP UP with OLPC in the memo. Then mail it to:

Eric McClafferty
Kelley and Drye
3050 S St. NW, #400
Washington, DC 20007