Tuesday, August 18, 2009

lots and lots of pictures!

We just posted a bunch of pictures up here on picasa. Check them out!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back Across the Pond

Just as I wrote at the onset of our project, I am not entirely sure how it will end up. When we were leaving JFK airport at the beginning of June, I suppose there were different uncertainties. Minor things like which country we would be spending the next two months in, which school the project would go to and who exactly James and I would be working with were the questions then. It may sound ironic, but these are the secondary questions now.

Moments ago I read an e-mail about the price of power strips and how Stephanie and Justin plan to completely finish the installation that we began several weeks ago. The maker came in over budget on the first one, so Stephanie, Justin and Devon are planning to look into other options for the remaining strips. This is unusual as we were accustomed to having the first piece of work up to our expectations and seeing the quality decline after the full order was placed.

I am confident that the power strip situation will work out and the charging cabinet construction will finish. The bigger question is how the charging cabinets along with all the material infrastructure in combination with the intangible knowledge transfer take shape in Ecole Notre Dame this coming year. With regard to this we have much to be confident about. Not only did we successfully lead a workshop that instructed teachers on the integration of the laptop into their curriculum, but also instructed students in computer and educational skills. Additionally we ran demonstration learning projects, which illustrated the practical advantages of using the XO in education.

As we administered an exam on the last day of teacher training we were impressed with the progress of many of the teachers and encouraged about the prospect of successful usage next year. One of my major priorities with this project has been making sure that the computers are used. During our orientation in Rwanda we saw hundreds of laptops at different schools not being used. There were several reasons for this and OLPC is working to remedy the problem there. The greatest assurance that this will be far different from our deployment is the already scheduled computer time in next year's schedule.

While we cannot guarantee success, I am confident about the prospects of our project working out into the future. We have teachers that are no longer afraid of the laptop, we have a school that is receptive and supportive of the project, we have enthusiastic kids, and we have time allotted for its use. All of these factors working together make me comfortable that these laptops will not only be out of their boxes, but will be used in a valuable way for the students and teachers of Ecole Notre Dame.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When West Meets West

Shortly after we opened the Record activity and began our class time for the day, we heard some noise through the open windows. It was a volunteer organization of foreigners trying to make Senegal a better place. Their idea is to plant trees across the country. James reports that they have planted about 10,000 so far.

Why do they need trees here? Shouldn't we give them food first? Why do foreigners have to run this project? Is Mboro the right spot? Why interrupt the natural simplicity of the sand?

All of these questions are ones that I thought of today and was asked by everyone that I mentioned this project to before I boarded the airplane. OK maybe all except the last one.

These thoughts brought me back to the third row of seventh grade social studies class. Looking down from the elevated second to last row, Mr. Clemente's clean shaven face stuck out more than usual. It wasn't because of the glistening sweat resulting from the September heat, but rather from my introduction to seventh grade US history. It was a short story about a people called Nacirema. It talked about weird rituals that they had, one of which included cleaning their face with sharp metal tools. Another quirk is that their name is sometimes read backwards.

Looking out the window it is easy to say that they can't reach every place in the world or that other things are more important or that the development project should be more locally focused. The more challenging action is to ask these questions facing the center of the classroom.

This has served as a good motivator for us as we had one of our best team planning sessions this evening and will try out some new tactics including foregoing a more formal introduction to our day's activity and to instead work off examples from our laptops. We will begin tomorrow's session with Turtle Art, which is similar to a once popular childrens' introduction to programming that involved a mechanical aparatus, a pen, and paper. After that we will work on the Maze activity for a short while and then proceed to Record again. With Record we will show the teachers how they can have their students record poetry or stories even before they can write. Stephanie realized that this was a great use of the XO after finding out that the younger students do not compose their own poetry because of their inability to write.

Staying focused on the task at hand and maintaining perspective is not always easy to do. As in seventh grade there is a time to look out the window and a time to look in.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Peace Corps

Eli's been talking a lot lately about the great way Peace Corps has been treating us so I thought I'd reiterate some of that online. Things that they have been extremely cool about:
-We were originally going to Mauritania, and we had to change that to Senegal in about 2 days. Peace Corps Mauritania handed us off to PC Senegal and we just kind of rocked up one day and they were pretty cool with it. Shout-out to Ginger Tissier (the grant would not have been won without you), Wil Ryan, Chris Williams, Chris Hedrick (the Country Director) and Oliver (the PC regional house manager).
-PC Senegal let us stay at their regional house in Dakar for free, which is at a great location in the city, has great beds and mosquito nets, and a bunch of really fun people always hanging around.
-PC Senegal got our laptops through customs ON TIME (This is crazy) and without us having to pay a DIME (This is also pretty insane). This is critical because it was so easy for us to do, and has been very hard for other teams to do. We didn't talk to a single customs official ourselves.
-PC Senegal drove us to direct to Mboro with half the laptops in a sweet Toyota Landcruiser the first Monday after we arrived. The day after, they delivered the other half of the laptops in the morning - no charge either time.
-We have ordered 10 laptops extra to completely saturate the 5 oldest grades. PC Senegal offered to allow us use of their diplomatic pouch so we would have absolutely no troubles clearing customs. A diplomatic pouch cannot be taxed or inspected - only condition is that whatever's in there needs to be less than 40 pounds. In addition, since the diplomatic pouch forwarding address is in the states (the way it works is that you send stuff to an address in Virginia and it gets automatically forwarded to the country director in whatever country you are shipping to), we saved $330 on shipping.
-Devon Connolly is incredibly experienced, professional, and cool. He's a fully integrated 3rd year volunteer who is also fluent in Wolof. He knows everyone in town and is respected by all. He makes sure we don't get "toubab-ed" (i.e. discriminated against in shops because we're white) and knows the best spots to hang out in town, be it at the beach or at the bar. He also runs Gentoo Linux on his personal laptop - meaning that he knows command line like the back of his hand and is extremely competent with computers.
-PC Senegal is almost certainly committed to deploying another volunteer in Mboro since we have such a large project here - we have verbal confirmation of this from the country director personally.
-Speaking of the country director, Christopher Hedrick is accessible, friendly and professional. We met with him personally a day or two after we arrived and he was really behind the idea and gave us full support from Day 1.
-Every other Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) that we have met (mostly in Dakar at the Regional House) has been extremely welcoming to us and receptive of our idea.

The conclusion:
Work with Peace Corps if you want your project to work. We know that if we go back to Africa to do this project again, it will be Peace Corps all the way in whatever country we choose. We think that it would be even better if in the future, OLPCorps was formally partnered with Peace Corps because of everything we've said. They have the resources and manpower to make projects happen.

Deep into Teacher Training

We're coming up on the second week of teacher training, and in response to feedback we've gotten from teachers, we're making it much more structured than it was before. After last week, all the teachers are familiar with the XO, if not comfortable with it, and we are going to start giving out homework for them to do. We already gave them a homework assignment on friday, which was to come up with a newspaper article, import a photo into Write, and write your newspaper article in Write. We wrote up on the board our goals for next week, which are (in probably horrible french grammar):

Les Objectifs pour la deuxieme semaine
-Il faut soyez capable de faire ces activites sans aide - Liste - Calculer, Ecrire, Naviguer, Enregistrer, Dessiner, Speak, Distance, Memoriser, Lune, Maze, Implode, Ruler, Discuter, ArtTortue, TamTamJam, TamTamMini
-Devoir pour Mardi - avoir un revision de votre article de journale
-Devoir pour Mercredi - pensez de 2 idees pour projets d'apprentissage et les ecrivez dans Ecrire
-Devoir pour Vendredi - Venez au class avec un devoir pour un classe qui vous enseignez (Maths, Anglais, etc). Il faut que cette devoir utilise au moins de 2 activites dans la liste a droite. Faisez un example de cette devoir.

For the non-french speakers out there, that translates to:

Objectives for the 2nd Week
-You have to be able to do these activities without help - List - Calculate, Write, Browse, Record, Paint, Speak, Distance, Memorise, Moon, Maze, Implode, Ruler, Discuter, Turtle Art, TamTamJam, TamTamMini
-Homework for Tuesday - have a revised version of your newspaper article
-Homework for Wednesday - think of 2 ideas for learning projects and write them in Write
-Homework for Friday - Come to class with a homework for a class that you teach (Math, English, etc.) The homework has to use at least 2 activites in the list at the right. Do an example of this homework.

Our eventual goal is that they be able to open up a completely unknown activity and be able to figure it out/use it in under half an hour. We feel that if we do that, they'll have learned the computer enough to adapt to whatever comes their way.

Next monday (a week from tomorrow) we hope to have a session on XO repair - after that we'll move into the more complicated activities like Scratch and Etoys. Teaching those two will definitely take up the better half of the third week. The fourth week (August 2-7) will be the beginning of the camp for the kids. And then Eli and I will be gone :( - but the other half of the team, Justin and Stephanie, will be around until August 20th to continue the camp.

This is a pretty ambitious goal, but we've been helped by a couple of factors:
-Some teachers were trained in computers already. They had a month long training from some Belgian people up at the factory in October. They learned how to use Word, Excel, and Firefox, we think.
-Note - I actually just met that Belgian guy, he was hanging out with the headmaster right now. They have a training center here called CIFOP (Centre Informatique de Formation de.. I dunno after that exactly) which teaches welding, electrical and mechanical skills, and computer skills. He's a secondary school teacher who runs trips down to Senegal with his high school students to promote cross-cultural exchange and to train Senegalese. You can check out their website at http://www.lets-move.be/
-All of us are becoming a lot more familiar with the teachers and what works best for their individual styles. Some teachers learn very fast, and some are a little slower.
-Devon Connolly is awesome, he speaks fluent Wolof - basically anytime we can't communicate something ourselves we go to him. In addition, he's a Linux whiz - he figured out a script to put a swap partition on an sd card to improve application-switching performance, and another command to put the time right on the frame. He basically did all the work to connect the cables to the female jacks in the conduit and he's been doing some stress testing on the network. In short, we couldn't have done any of this without Devon. Another post will be coming soon about how much we love the Peace Corps and Devon.
-My French has been improving little by little, and all the teachers here speak French fluently. Communication is nice :)
-We're getting the teachers that learn faster to help the teachers that learn more slowly. We're training some people that aren't actually teachers (the secretary, Helen, the janitor, Emmanuel, and the priest, Tanis), in addition to a couple of teachers from Garou, a neighboring town that also has a Catholic school. Some of those extra people are the fastest learners, so are having them teach the slower learners. Students teaching students and constructionism prevail! (Warm and fuzzy feelings abound)

I made a point above about me speaking French a little better, and that segues into a point that Eli has made before but I feel bears repeating - people know SO MANY LANGUAGES! Take for example the teachers. They are all ethnically Serer - so they know the Serer language. Then they all know Wolof because it is the lingua franca in Senegal. Then they all know French because it is what all books are written in (almost nothing is written in Wolof). And on top of that, some of them know a little English too! This is typical of most people in town here - they are fluent in both French and Wolof, and if they're not ethnically Wolof, they know their mother tongue (Serer, Pulaar, etc.). We met one guy at Devon's friends house on the beach that speaks English, French, Hassaniya, Wolof, Spanish, and Pulaar. He would be like a renowned scholar in the states, here he's a tourism operator who has some beachfront property. I feel really bad that I can only speak English fluently and French conversationally.

In other news, we've been going to the beach a lot recently. We go there after we've eaten lunch (after teacher training in the morning) so we avoid the hottest part of the day. The walk through the woods/desert is about 5km - I've done it twice now. If we don't want to walk we just take the taxi which is only 150 CFA (.34 USD) In some places there's a trail, but for the second half of it there's just dunes and scrub. Right before the beach there's a little strip of pine trees; to go from a pine forest where nobody has disturbed the needles on the floor for so long that you could sleep there to seeing the ocean is incredibly cool. Devon's friends house that I was talking about is right on the beach, so we go there and sit under the shade in the clean sand and watch the waves and try and speak Wolof/French/English to whoever shows up. It's pretty picturesque, no lie.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

memorize to Memorize

After our second day of training we were not sure how to move forward. We knew that we were making progress and that it is dificult to learn a new technology, but at the same time we could sense some problems with our process. Some of the teachers commented that while it may be nice to take pictures, that is not the point of their class. We debated the merits of explaining contructionism and how it is learning to take pictures and to use a computer, or to just see if we could tailor our teaching to our trainees.

As we walked away from the school around 9pm yesterday I was still unsure of exactly what was going to happen today. I knew that we had chosen to use Memorize as our activity for the day, but I wasn't sure how well the teachers would understand the application, or whether they would perceive it as useful.

This morning began again with a speach not only by James, but by a dynamic duo composed of both James and Devon. Leveraging French and Wolof languag skills, the two communicated that we would make efforts to show examples of laptop learning projects that relate to an elementary school ciriculum. They followed, but were not quite invigorated until we opened up the XO and started with Memorize.

We first had all of the teachers open up Memorize and then load the addition game, which is pre-loaded on the laptops. We again sat with the teachers and explained how to use the game. James described it as a computer version of a flashcard and demonstrated Mali and Bamako on opposite sides of a piece of paper. Some teachers got the concept right away, while others took some encouraging as they wondered why they did not get the answer right on the first time. The concept of luck may translate in language, but is definitely hard for anyone to accept.

After each teacher finished the demo game we had them create their own game. We jumped right into it and each of us chose different tactics. I had the first teacher that I worked with today use Dakar and Senegal as her first pair. Then I had her come up with another pair, which was the United States and Washington DC. Although on that one I had to help change the reponse (answer) from New York to Washington DC.

Other teachers started to make their own games featuring a variety of topics including math, language translations, captial letters, history and countries. Most grasped the concept rather quickly and a few made several differet games. Outside of the initial explanation that most required, there were surprisingly few issues with this session. A minor issue that came up a few times was that on the demo games the questions are at the top and the answers at the bottom, while the default for creating a game places the questions and answers randomly.

At the end of the session again the dynamic duo explained a newspaper project that we have been planning. The group came up with a list of ideas that were written on the blackboard. We then asked each teacher to prepare an article for class on Monday. We asked if they need to have any more skills to complete the assignment, and a few asked questions like how to import a photo into the Write activity, which was easy to re-explain.

After a successful day we went for a walk to the ocean. It's about 5km directly, but we chose to take the path through the breusse and it was definitely a nice to see the open fields and sand in the open instead of on the side of the road. As James was lying down on the beach, friendly crab started crawling on him, which prompted a good reaction.