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
-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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Our setup

So some OLPC people have asked us to describe our technical setup. At the moment, since our server is not working, we are using a switch to rout the internet to the different routers. The school is setup like this:

with the headmasters office in grey. The blue spot is where the DSL modem, (A D-Link DSL 2640) is located, as well as the switch and the server. The internet setup there is as follows: telephone line->modem->switch->out to routers, since the server is not yet working. When the server is setup, the internet should flow like: telephone line->modem->server->switch->out to routers. The red dots are the routers, and the green lines are the ethernet cables.

From the headmasters office, we drilled a hole through the wall, stuck some ethernet cable in a plastic hose and buried it going out to the two buildings. Once it gets to the buildings, we've enclosed the naked ethernet cable in a conduit like:

The cable comes in at the bottom and terminates at the top like:

In addition, there is an electrical outlet for the router there too:
In that picture, the router is not wired up, here it is:

Because of the different configurations of the rooms, all the different shelves are in different places, for example in another room, the shelf is closer to the floor:

You might have noticed before that we have two ethernet jacks in our conduit, with cable coming out of both of them. That's because our routers are daisy-chained (connected) to each other, but not directly. If they were connected directly, the cable might have broken/torn the router itself if it was ripped out of the router, and we would have to buy a lot more cable to fix it. Instead, the internet comes in through one jack in the conduit, then a short cable comes from the router and goes back to the conduit, and then we have a cable on the wall going to the other router in that building. See this picture:

The router in the picture is closer to the headmasters building. The other routers don't need that second short cable because they're not connected to another router down the line.

Right now all the routers have the same SSID (network name), and the hope is that whatever router you are closest to your computer will connect to. We turned down the wireless broadcasting strength in DD-WRT to 10 mW (from 28 normally) so that we wouldn't be broadcasting outside school walls:

Currently, we've been having some problems with the internet slowing down and we're not sure if it's related to the fact that we're using the internet more or if it's because there are 5 wireless routers (the modem is also sending out a wireless signal because it's a combo dsl modem+switch+wireless access point) and even though we've put them on different channels (1, 6, and 11) there are two that are interfering with the others. We're going to do some testing once we get the server and disconnect a router + turn off the wireless of the modem to see if three routers + the server can handle the load of a lot of laptops. We're going to try to connect a lot of laptops to one specific router and see what happens, to see if the server handles all the ejabbered requests properly. Maybe the internet will be a little better once we have the server b/c we'll have the SQUID internet caching service working.

In other news, today was our second day of teacher training and it went quite well. After diving into a learning activity the first day, we backed up and taught the computer starting from the basics. We drew the keyboard on the board:

and had Devon explain what all the buttons and ports were used for. Next, Devon explained the entire user interface - Home, Group, Neighborhood, Journal, and Frame. We practiced sharing activities and as usual, sometimes it didn't work. I think this was a good thing because it shows the teachers that there are going to be problems with the laptops.

As to be expected, there are some teachers who are really excellent and who have used computers before, and there are some teachers who lag behind. The main barriers are the fact that the keyboard and touchpad are small and unforgiving to larger (i.e. adult) hands, and that we don't speak the language. My french is getting better, but it's still hard to understand when people ask me questions out of the blue. It's much easier for me to understand when I ask them a question and expect a certain response.

It's really nice to finally dive into some real work here! In the coming weeks, we're going to be constructing charging cabinets for the XO, finishing up teacher training, and starting to work with the kids. Also, we ordered 10 more XO's from OLPC to completely saturate the top 5 grades.

By the way, the top 5 grades have this student distribution:
Grade - # students - appx age - teacher name
CP - 49 ~8 - Jean-Claude Sagna
CE - 46 ~9 - Francoise Thiaw
CE2 - 39 ~10 - Mme Elizabeth
CM1 - 33 ~11 - Helene Diagne
CM2 - 37 ~12 - Pierre Khar Tine - also the headmaster

There is a lowest grade, CI, but we don't have enough computers to cover it. The incoming class from the preschool is about 30 kids and it would be too much. In any event, that adds up to 204 kids - however we have 5 teachers, plus the technology director of catholic schools (Elizabeth) who we are giving a laptop to, which brings our grand total of laptops needed to 210 - which is why we need to buy 10 more!

Fortunately, because the UMiami team no longer needs their solar panels (they had ordered 50 in the event that they were going to Kankossa, Mauritania), they are sending the panels back and we are getting credited for those panels (~$1,200). Which means that half the cost of the laptops ($200* 10 laptops + $400 shipping = $2,400) is being defrayed, putting this unexpected purchase happily within our budget. More laptops = more happy kids!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Out of the box(es)

Today we began teacher training at Ecole Notre Dame. Over the weekend we mapped out our three day plan and got up on time to start the part of the project that we have anticipated for the past weeks. We arrived at school around 9 am before our scheduled start at 10. We moved the desks around the classroom, where we have stored the computers, into a circle and then waited for the teachers to arrive.

Once most of our crowd arrived James, in a game time change in the line up, stood up and addressed the teachers. Last night we discussed how to introduce the laptop and I think James hit all the points although I could not follow all of it. Just as James was opening his notebook to inform Devon of his speech, Devon encouraged James to utilize his French skills and it turned out well. The teachers nodded along as James explained that the laptop was not an ordinary computer, but and educational device, and then we opened it up.

When the teachers opened the computer several wondered if their's was ok as it took a little while to start up. Once everyone had successfully booted up their computer we had them change their computer into French. This took a little while as we explained step by step how to go to the control panel and then the language submenu to eventually reach the French language feature. During this process we were spread out through the room and helped with skills ranging from mousing to clicking. Some learned how to scroll through the menu with the up and down keys on the keyboard.

Most of the teachers speak Serere as their first language as we are working in Catholic school and that is the ethnicity and mother tongue of most of this group. Secondly, they speak Wolof as it is the language spoken in public for the vast majority of Senegal. Then most educated people speak French and the more educated people speak another language or too, usually English or another Western one.

With the computers in French we opened up the Record activity. The teachers took a picture of themselves after we briefly explained the process. Again the five of us were integrated into the circle so they had easy access to additional demonstration or answers to most of their questions. After most had command of our first program we opened up the write activity and most started writing either about the training and their feelings or a short bit about their family.

Taking from our collective experiences in Rwanda we decided to have each of the teachers create a multiple language dictionary with photographs. This learning project uses the Record and Write activity in addition to teaching skills such as switching programs, naming files, inserting images, and formating a document. It might sounds a bit ambitious and it turned out as such. Still the success of the project and skills aquired by the teachers was impressive.

Most of the teachers completed a good portion of the project. Each teacher besides one, who had technical issues on her computer, successfully imported pictures and added text to the dictionary.

We started presentations, but the force of Senegalese dejeuner (lunch) was too strong for us to combat. We decided to pick up tomorrow.

After a long afternoon of discussions and rest Stephanie, Justin, James and I had the opportunity to be the first customers at the opening of our land lord's tea house. Neen, omlette sandwiches, and fataya were on the menu in addition to coffee. It was not a classic grand opening as most would imagine, but it was a nice change of pace to be in a dining room that did not contain the heat of the stove and with enough space to feel a good breeze.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Some Video from our trip

You can tell that Stephanie is excited! This was taken some time ago, on the 23rd of June.

Dance, Rhetoric, Wrestle, Rice

James and I originally decided to apply to OLPCorps for a deployment in Tidjikja, Mauritania with the Peace Corps as our local partner because my brother, Seth, is living and working there. We both thought that the project was a good idea, but without a dependable connection we didn't know if the project could work. As it turned out it can. Only a few weeks after we first corresponded with our new Peace Corps contact, we found ourselves fully situated into our school, Ecole Notre Dame, and watching a traditional wrestling match just feet away from the mayor of Mboro. Drumming in the back ground too.

On consecutive weekends we have seen wrestling matches in Mboro. For the first we waited through the dancing, singing and a few speaches for over four hours before the first grapple. The scene in general is completely masculine, but there are women too in a healthy minorty. They sit mostly on one side of the stands, while a few more take seats in the VIP section under the awning.

At our first match we sat only feet away from the current mayor of our town; this past saturday across the stands from the mayor who won the election. Yes it's true. In a contested election the candidate who received the most votes was passed over by his political party for the current mayor. The current mayor has brought much controversy to Mboro for a few reaspons including his religion. The elected candidate in Muslim, like the majority of people in Mboro, while the newly instated mayor is Catholic like the small minority of this town.

In both cases after a few short speaches and a good deal of dancing and singing, the politics took a back seat to the grappling in the sand pit. Each wrestler comes with a couple of buddies to the match and they dance around and participating in ceremonies ranging from pouring water on the wrestler's head to burying leaves in the center of the pit. Nothing sillier than Nomar Garciaparra stepping into the batter's box.

The actual wrestling is a small portion of the time that most people spend at the arena, but it is highly anticipated and exciting. The wreslers swing their arms at each other and try to get a good grasp of their opponent. Often they lock up and can stay that way for a good bit of the fight. The first one on their back loses, while the victor's supporters rush through the string barrier held up by wooden poles to celebrate in a college football way. And instead of a shiny trophy, the winner goes home with a huge bag of rice and a box of sugar.