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A Right To Learn Freely

by Timothy Falconer

A child has the right to their own wonder, to their enthusiasm, to their innate curiosity as they explore the world around them. A child has the right to ask questions and be heard, to hear answers from adults without impatience or contempt. A child has the right to create beauty as their heart compels them, to be encouraged in their community without fear of apathy or ridicule. A child has the right to learn freely.

Too often we adults get caught up in ourselves, in the demands of each day as we try to survive. Nowhere is this more true than in the poorest areas of the world, where survival demands its due in every moment of every day. Too many of our children have the eyes of adults, weary well beyond their years, their wonder stolen much too soon.

But there's a new hope this year, arriving in the form of little laptop computers from OLPC. With these new laptops, Waveplace Foundation is teaching Caribbean kids to become digital storytellers, to use these little machines to help nurture their talents for the benefit of all.

As adults, we see computers as a tool for our work. We see only their pragmatic side, and so think of computers as a necessary job skill. At Waveplace, we see something else as we watch children with their new laptops. We see pride in their eyes at being given such a special gift. We see excitement as they learn to do wondrous new things. We see determination to solve the next puzzle, a look we imagine on their faces in the future as they tackle the world's troubles.

To a child, having their own laptop is like having a special confidant, a secret sharer, one with infinite patience and continual encouragement. In the Waveplace course, children learn to program these computers, which is a creative and effective way to teach problem solving. The confidence they get when they're able to do this is incredible. It's changing how they feel about all learning. They become more enthusiastic and more engaged.

More than this, these laptops connect them to the world. Just as books have carried wisdom through the ages, these computers connect children to teachers and students from afar. Even as the harshness of their home begins to crush their spirit, these laptops are a window to what's possible, to the certain knowledge that they have a right to learn, and grow, and dream.

Not bad for two-hundred bucks.

A'Feyah's Story

by Linda Smutz

"I'm the worst kid in this class."

These were the first words out of A'Feyah's mouth, after nodding shyly to grant me permission to watch her work on her XO. As a stranger from the mainland with zero credibility, there was no point in trying to persuade her otherwise, so I simply asked to hear about her story. That's how I found out about CeCe the dog, who was happy enough living under a table outside A'Feyah's trailer until another dog joined the family one day. The draft was a little rough, but it had everything: characters, setting, plot, problem, tension, and resolution. The story also had something pencil and paper could not have provided: animated illustrations. Wavy lines of wind blew delicious kitchen smells toward CeCe; a bird flew and the sun rose in the sky. Together, A'Feyah and I shared a wonderful writer's conference -- I offered questions her readers might have, and she expanded her thoughts and developed the plot a little more.

Two days later, I returned to fourth grade just in time to see Bill Stelzer's lesson on copying and pasting illustrations onto different pages to allow for different animations. He lost me about three minutes into the process, but the students were listening carefully. Since the day's task was to continue editing text rather than illustrations, I wondered if anyone would remember the several steps needed to manipulate the drawings. While the other kids moved closer to Bill for another demonstration (this one involving superheroes), A'Feyah stayed with her XO, busily making her sun shine and her bird fly on the same page, with a few missteps but no help from anyone. This self-proclaimed "worst kid in the class" was programming her computer to tell a story from her own life, with animated illustrations, no less. And it was a good story. She gave me a broad, confident smile when I asked if she would share her story with students in my school. I don't believe A'Feyah thinks she's the worst kid in the class anymore.

We talked about swimming and dogs and jellyfish. A'Feyah is full of stories waiting to be told. Getting them out of her head and into the world would appear to be a hopeless proposition, were it not for the skills and confidence growing in this young girl, thanks to a group of caring adults and the technology that allows her to write, illustrate and publish her work. It's no small task and enormously time-consuming to mentor young writers and artists, but I can't imagine a more fulfilling endeavor with as much potential to preserve the integrity of Caribbean communities and culture.

The St John Pilot Finishes

by William Stelzer

On Thursday March 27, an exciting chapter in Caribbean education history came to an end as we finished our Guy Benjamin Pilot here on St. John. As the kids did their final presentations of the digital storybooks they created, I could not help but be amazed by their journey of the past three months.

At our very first Etoys class, I asked the kids how many computer programmers they knew. Between them they could name only three. I then told them they were all about to become computer programmers, and then we strapped them to their rocket sleds and lit the fuse. One thing that is fascinating to watch is how quickly kids learn XO basics, especially when it comes to games, music, and chat. I really only had to teach a kid or two and then sit back as the newfound knowledge spread like wildfire.

Learning Etoys was much more of a challenge, especially for kids in the Virgin Islands, who are disadvantaged by a struggling education system, while simultaneously bombarded by the latest technological distractions from the rest of the world. To combat this, we found that mentoring was absolutely essential. If kids get stuck or lost on their own, it is all too easy for them to abandon their efforts in frustration and never go back.

Also during the course of the pilot we found innovative new ways to teach digital media and programming here in the Caribbean. One of the more entertaining ways was handing the kids paper compasses, then turning the playground into a huge Etoys screen with the kids themselves as computer objects. From there they would march out their geometric and true/false programming, to cement key concepts into their mind and bodies.

Through it all, it was inspiring to watch the kids rise to the challenges, using Etoys to bring life to their creative visions. One cannot help but feel that there is a powerful new wave building, and it is fascinating to think that the kids at tiny Guy Benjamin School are among the very first in the world to jump on - and ride it into the future.

Are We Preparing Our Children?

by Peter Wholihan

"The opportunities that young people hold for the Caribbean region, where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, cannot be underestimated." (Caribbean Youth Development, World Bank, May 2003).

Cell phones in the pocket, iPods to the ears, GameBoys in the hand, young people are connected. Are schools? What exactly are our youth connected to and how do they use technology? How about Student Cell Phone Pictures, Passa Passa, and YouTube? If you know what I am writing about, you are connected. If you do not, ask a young person and watch the reaction. To paraphrase Thomas Friedman in his book, "The World is Flat", are we preparing our children for the race ahead? No!

The same World Bank report also spoke to the importance of schools to students in the Caribbean:

Connectedness to schools is highly protective against all risky behaviors, including using drugs and alcohol and engaging in violent or sexual activity. For example, among school-going adolescents, the probability of sexual behavior falls by 30 percentage points for boys and 60 percentage points for girls if they are connected to schools. Conversely, the school system can have devastating effects on those youth with low academic achievement by not granting them a place in school and, as a corollary, making them feel socially excluded and "worthless."

Are our youth using technology? Yes! Are they harnessing these tools in innovative ways. Yes! Can we do a better job of providing them with guidance and educational knowhow to become better citizens and contributors to our society as a whole? We must! The alternative is too dire to contemplate.

I am excited to be involved with Waveplace. Not only is the organization geared to provide students with their own laptop computer, but more importantly its main emphasis is on course materials and training in the innovative use of technology. This approach can be used in the Caribbean to harness and encourage youths attraction to technology and to build greater capacity into our human resources to be brought to its full potential. My hope is programs such as these can have concentric and profound educational, economic, and societal benefits for the Caribbean and beyond.

Welcome Waveplace!

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