Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Last Days in Cameroon

The last week was a hectic storm of activity, broken only by the occasional glimpse of sunlight through the perpetual clouds of Buea. This final week of class was highlighted by the progress all of our students were showing, now able to accomplish any number of complex tasks on their XO's as well as explore on their own. (to the great amusement or their teachers, I remember the first time I let them bring their XOs home the next day they were incredibly eager to show me all the pictures of ancient Mayan sports games and copies of the Declaration of Independence that they had found in the collection of world images available offline in the Browse activity). As our students gained skills we were able to create learning projects that tested their abilities and challenged them to explore new areas that they would never have touched on in a normal classroom. The many projects we did require some explanation and are treated in more detail in a separate blog entry. Beside the ends in out of class we had other tasks to accomplish before we could sit back on the airplane leaving Douala and feel confident enough to say that we had done all that we could to ensure our project would continue and could successfully sustain itself through the upcoming school year. To this end we decided it was necessary to put together a Handbook or guide to using the XOs in the classroom, something that would include examples of learning projects and suggestions for the teachers whose responsibility it would be to introduce these laptops into their classes at Jamadianle come September. For the most part we felt fairly confident that the teachers who had gone through our training sessions as well as those who had the opportunity to use the XOs during their Summer Holiday classes would have little problem successfully integrating the XOs into their daily lessons to great effect. However we wanted to be sure that these teachers, as well as those who would be coming back fom spending their summer holidays elsewhere, would have an comprehensive resource available that they could reference for inspiration as well as for assistance in technical matters including troubleshooting any problems that might arise during a typical day in the classroom. As we scrambled for time to write this guide in the UAC Cyber, we also made sure to collect contact information from the many teachers and other UAC staff we had worked with so we could make updates to this document as well as check up on how classes were progressing in the fall, as of course, just to stay in touch as several of them had become friends. As Friday drew nearer Brittney and I found ourselves spending longer than usual hanging out at the Orock's house, savoring these last days with the family we had been so warmly welcomed into. This of course and the fact that we bid our most of our fellow volunteers goodbye on Wednesday morning as they were leaving for a vacation in Kribi and would not be returning until after our flight, so we were feeling a little lonely back in the volunteer house. The night before they left we had our sendoff ceremony, a tradition with the UAC where whenever a volunteer was leaving we would all share a common meal of our request from Madame Amelia. During this ceremony Mr. Orock was absent as he had missed his train coming back from the far north but the rest of us volunteers and UAC members celebrated in style with our favorite Beans and Rice, Chicken and French Fries in special tomato sauce. We also had the opportunity to make short speeches about our experience working with the UAC this summer and perhaps there were more than a few people with some moistness in their eyes, or it could have just been the reflection of Hannah Montana coming from the TV.
Friday arrived early and as we stepped out onto the mud path to head to the UAC Compound for our last day of class we were greeted by a few rays of sun, the first in weeks, surely a sign that today would be a fitting finale to our summer's work. Without a doubt we would be doing Harambee today (as long as the weather held, you never know) and it was going to be sooo HYPE!
When we arrived at the compound the kids were as usual milling around in chaos, but there was an extra element of activity, which we were to soon find out was the presence of some 100 candidates who were applying for teaching positions in the Jamadianle School. Evidently the 100 percent success rate on their final exams made the school a popular choice and there were many applicants for a fairly limited number of positions, not a bad situation to be in. It was somewhat awkward when I went to ask the Head Nursery teacher Madam Ada if t wouldn't be too disturbing to throw down a massive Harambee circle in the middle of all this, at which point she took me around to each of the rooms where the hopeful teachers to be were waiting for their interviews and made those stand up who professed to be "computer literate". The number proved awkwardly small and more awkward still was their obvious struggle between an honest assessment of their abilities and their desire to be considered for the job. After which Madam Ada assured me that they would only be hiring new teachers who had skills in ITC so as to adequately support the new OLPC aspect of their classes, progress, i guess. We did manage to secure permission to Harambee and after a rousing (and somewhat sweaty) run through of our favorite cheers and chants we all packed into the main hall for our final class. In this class the students were asked to make a presentation about what they had learned over the summer, and in this they could use any combination of their favorite programs to make it as multimedia and informative as possible. Many of the students stuck with the professional format of writing up a numbered list of their achievements and these I read to much excitement as they very succinctly included most of the goals we had set out to accomplish at the start of our program. Other students used Scratch presentations or Record to make full motion presentations demonstrating the many things they had learned and each of these deserved to be recorded and saved as they really made it clear how far these students had come over the course of the summer. After taking in all these projects it was time to take up the XOs and say goodbye, and as hard as this was we did it knowing the XOs would go on to benefit more children during the school year and that those who had been through our program had enjoyed a really wonderful experience. Besides which several of them had created email accounts and would be keeping in touch with their teachers form America.
At this point it was time for Brittney and I to go back and finish packing, after which we decided to go to Bonokanda for Caravan one final time. In Bonokando we only had a short while before we needed to leave for the airport but in this time we managed to have a rousing jump-rope competition, spurred on my the packet of glittery stickers that I found in my pocket. As the inevitable rain began to fall again we headed back to the UAC to pick up Epeye who evidently needed to bring a bunch of plantains down the road on our way and after several more random people piled into the van (as always trips to Douala were strangely popular) we finally left. After enduring the incredibly horrible road (if it can be called that) that marked the Boniberi entrance to Douala we had just enough time to use the remainder of our CFAs up at the Zepol bakery were the most delicious pastries could be had for impossible to beat prices (!). From this point we made our way to the airport and after a short but meaningful farewell to Barclay and Monique and our faithful Germans Leah and Jannick, Brittney and I checked in, paid our exit tax and finally relaxed in our seats, I personally anticipating the In Flight meal on our journey to London that was Air France's forte. It had been am incredible summer and we were committed to spending all the time we could find over the next year to staying in touch with the people we had met and supporting the program we had founded with the UAC in Buea, Cameroon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Presentations in the last week of classes

In the final week we had many creations from our students that really showed how much they had learned during the summer. Some of these presentations are from Siler's students, based around what and how they envision themselves in the future. Some are from the younger class, where they had to research a country and make a scratch presentation where they met the leader of the country. On the final day, our classes were combined for one last time, and we asked our students to either make a presentation about what they learned this summer using write, paint, or scratch. Here are all of the wonderful things they came up with:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Trip Down Yaounde

This past week has been a whirlwind and this upcoming one promises to be just as busy as we have our final days of classes while we wrap up our trainings of the teachers and the UAC staff and prepare for our sad but inevitable departure this Friday.
This past Wednesday Sam, Brittney and I traveled to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, in order to meet with a special contact of Mr. Orock who occupied a high position in the government as well as to meet up with the OLPC team that was working on a much larger 5,000 laptop deployment in 51 government schools in the Northern part of the country. We were scheduled to leave early in the morning, and after having breakfast, doing a bit of waiting, and then finally getting into the pickup truck that Mr. Orock's personal driver Antoine would be taking us along with Mr. Orock's good friend and co-proprietor of Jamadianle Henry to Yaounde in, we set out... and then pulled over at a stream on the side of the road because evidently we needed to have the vehicle thoroughly cleaned before we could roll into a place like Yaounde, certainly we couldn't let them judge us for coming form rainy, muddy Buea. After another half hour or so, during which several men spent alot of time throwing water over the truck and scrubbing the wheels, which could certainly get dirty gain the minute they pulled out of the stream, we finally got under way and began the trip, which a 2.5 hour slog into Douala, followed by a thrillingly fast 3 hour speed along the highway to Yaounde, with several stops along the way for the paying of tolls and the buying of street snacks such as grilled plums, plantain chips, or fresh bananas. We finally rolled in around 3, and the difference between the commercial capital of Douala and the government capital of Yaounde was evident form the beginning. Whereas Douala was a chaotic headache of honking congestion threaded through by reckless motorbikes all pushing their way past a million random shops rising out of the mud, Yaounde, while it has its fair share of hustle and bustle in the surrounding sections, has something Douala lacks, stately charm from the many fairly grand and modern looking buildings that house the various ministries that make up the Cameroonian government. Even a few wide avenues and green spaces were visible as we drove through the 7 hills that make up the main part of the city, though of course our view was somewhat limited by the ever present rain. After we checked into out hotel and changed, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed down to the lobby wear we had scheduled a meeting with OLPC people who were working with the government to bring 5,000 laptops to schools in the northern region of the country, as part of a grant from an Islamic Bank. During this meeting we talked about how our summers had gone and shared stories about how successful the laptops had been in bringing new interest to education and inspiring both teachers and children. We concluded with promises to help each other out, us by providing information and lessons learned from our deployment this summer working with our 100 students and the teachers of the Jamadianle School. Them by connecting us with their contacts in the Ministry of Basic Education to see is there might be a chance to expand out successful deployment to other part of the Southwest Region, which would not be receiving any laptops from their own upcoming deployment. Aftter exchanging contact information we followed them to their office opposite the UNICEF building and saw where they had been conducting many of the trainings they had been focusing on this summer. From there we drove on to the house of the Special Assistant to the President, where we had our meeting scheduled for 7pm.
We arrived at about 8 pm, but our fears of coming late were put aside once we were told that he had not even arrived yet and so we took seats in the very large and comfortable sitting room where we were promptly served drinks and snacks by the many attendants he had in service at his very large and impressive residence.
As we waited we had the opportunity to chat with a few of the other personages waiting to meet the big man, among them the Rector of a University in Yaounde who had a son who studied at Drexel University (adjacent to our own UPenn), and another man who claimed to work for the Ministry of Commerce. He also claimed to have attended Harvard University and lived for many years in Cambridge, also having been to many other places in the US about which he spoke in length. With this man we had a long discussion about democracy in Africa and also about Cameroon and its many problems, all of which was very edifying and credible until he began to enlighten us about Hitler's role in losing the colony of Cameroon for Germany in the 1st World War. Despite this little slip up and the fact that he saw fit to bum a ride off of us when we left some hours later, the conversation was very interesting and we were engrossed in it right up until the entrance of the master of the house was announced and we all stood to greet him as he walked through and straight into another room where he spent some time meeting with a woman who accompanied him and another, evidently higher priority, man who had come in a little while after us.
Finally he came down to greet us and we explained to him our reason for coming and presented the laptops that we had brought to show him how effective they could be in educating the children of his country. He seemed to be interested and even asked several questions about how our experience working with the UAC has been and what our hopes for the future of the program were. We told him about the many things we had done over the summer and how we hoped that the success of our program would stand as an example to those in charge of the education system that these laptops could be very beneficial to the progress of the country and indeed were in line with many of the goals already set by the government which included introducing computer education, even to the extent that there would be a national exam on ITC required for all students of a certain level starting next year. He was forthcoming with suggestions, including the idea of bringing XO's to the "Champion Schools" sponsored by the first lady as a test case on a more national scale, and he offered to introduce us to contacts in the Ministry of Basic Education and the Ministry of IT Education to talk further about what could be done in the Southwest Region. We responded that though we were leaving Cameroon next week, we could certainly remain in touch via the internet and also empower Mr. Orock to meet with these individuals to talk about what next steps we could take to expand our deployment. With this and the late hour we made our gratitude for his time known and drove back to our hotel to spend a short night before setting off bright and early the next morning so as to arrive back in Buea in time for the end of class, which was being taught by some of the other volunteers that day, so that Sam could see his students for the last time and say goodbye to them before leaving the next day. As for Brittney and I, we were in need of rest, but also aware that our own last week of teaching approached and so eager to have a great last few days of lessons before making our own goodbyes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Day in the Life

And Several Weeks Later....

We find our three intrepid explorers deep in the midst of their teaching experience. Apologies for writing so infrequently but there really has been little time to do so as we've just had so much to do.
Each morning we arise around 7 to have breakfast next door at Mr. Orock's house, prepared by Mr. Orock's charming wife Madame Amelia or one of her many helpers in the kitchen such as Big M, Claudette, or Judith. From here we proceed, rain or shine, up the path which resembles more a river bed when dry, a real river when precipitating to the UAC Compound that includes the Cyber Cafe where I am writing, the Nursery School where the UAC Summer Holiday Classes take place and the UAC office where it all began and where we store the laptops each evening, and where the younger students ages 7 to 10 in our laptop classes are taught.
Depending on the day or the weather we may do Harambee with the kids before we start, a program we do at home in Philadelphia with our afterschool children that involves many cheers and chants to get excited about learning. The word come from a Swahili tradition and means "Everyone pulls together", needless to say the kids really love it and we often catch them clapping and singing the chants on their own outside of class.
Then we split the students up and the older ones ages 11 to 13 come with me, transported by the signature UAC vans, to Bwitingi, a nearby village where the new Jamadianle school has been built and where there is a larger hall to accommodate them.
Our classes run from 9 to 11 and we have accomplished several learning projects designed to emphasize the basics and to challenge the creativity of the students while they are also introduced to new programs and the many capabilities of the XO. Over the past few weeks the students in the older class have created superheroes and drawn them in paint, imported their pictures into write and written a back story to their heroes lives. They then went on Wikipedia and copied selections from different scientific articles relating to their heroes superpowers and pasted these under a separate section of their profiles. They have also made numbered lists of things describing themselves and then had the lists taken and mixed up so that they had to play a game to find out who each list described. They have taken notes in Write using bulleted lists on Mesh Networking and used chat to talk to each other. They have explored Memorize and made their own Memorize games matching phrases in their local Pidgin dialect to phrases in standard English, which they then swapped and played each others games. Most recently we talked about story writing, about setting, plot, conclusion and characters, after which I gave them a list of different animals and a list of themes from which they picked to write their own fairy tales. On Monday they will be making scenes from their stories, which they illustrated with photos and painted pictures today, come to like in Scratch, as the list I provided was made up only of animals that are options as Sprites. Also starting on Monday they will have the opportunity to sign-out their personal laptop at the end of the day and take it home with them, something we have been planning so as to happen in the most efficient and organized manner so that the students can share their work with their families and explore at home, while still guaranteeing that we are able to use the laptops in the other innovative capacities we are exploring.
At 11 after the 100 students have their class, we have alternating classes from the Jamadianle School Summer Classes come in accompanied by their teachers to go through a lesson that serves the dual purpose of introducing the XO's to these students as well as giving the teachers experience using them in he classroom.
At noon we have a teacher training two days a week, and the other days just have time to get all the laptops plugged in and charging before we are do back at the Orock's house for lunch at 1pm.
At 4 pm, after a short rest break (read: time to do laundry or write a blog) We take a load of the charged XOs along with sports equipment out to some of the villages surrounding the town of Buea. We play games with these children and then let them play on the XOs as part of the UAC's village outreach called the Summer Holiday Caravan. Many of these children have never seen a computer before and so it is quite a challenge to work with them to where they have enough ability to explore and do things on their own.
We return from the caravan just after 6, and with the evening fading fast we rush to put away all the laptops and chargers so that we can make it back to the house for supper before the darkness makes walking along the slippery uneven road a sure recipe for a mud covered bum and a severely injured pride.

That's a day in the life of Team DBF Cameroon, its supper time now and I am ravenous, more on our trips and some challenges soon, until next time folks!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Whole New Class of Crazy

Wednesday arrived before we knew it and as we were seated waiting for our breakfast at the Orock's house Barclay arrived to inform us that already there were many students waiting outside the hall for the program, which was scheduled to start at 9. It was just after 8. In a place where we were accustomed to most things beginning hours even after they were supposed to this was a strong sign that we would be in for quite a turnout, and so it was with much anticipation that we quickly ate our breakfast and made our way to the hall, which was about a 5 minute walk towards the main road. We could here the commotion from quite a distance as we approached and as we arrived we observed many many students waiting outside the hall, some lined up in front of the door while others chased each other around the yard of the compound or sat on the steps chatting. We obviously had way more students that could easily fit into the small hall we had set up the previous night, and though we were already planning ot split the group up and use the greater space of the new Jamadianle campus a few miles away, we had to make do with what we had the first few days and so preceded to pack more tables and chairs into the room, as well as set some up outside the door as it was not raining for once that morning. once we had all the students assembled in some seat or another, we preceded to pass out the laptops with instructions that they should leave them alone until we had given one to everyone, which they surprisingly followed, perhaps as a result of their respect for adults and experience with discipline, or maybe just that they had no idea how to open the laptop and turn it on. That was fine by us, we had prepared the lesson for the day to cover the most fundamental basics, so that we were starting from a level where every child could participate and make progress, even if they had never seen a computer before. We began by asking if anyone knew how to open the XO and 1 or 2 hands raised up, allowing us to have these students do their best to demonstrate to the class the process of flipping up the ears (antenna) and separating the screen from the keyboard to where it resembled a computer of a sorts at least, though one that looked more at home on Neptune than planet earth. We preceded to call on volunteers or demonstrate ourselves how to maneuver the mouse, how to click on activities, to open them and to close them properly, all of which took some time, but time well spent in the hope that once these basic skills were mastered the lessons to come would flow much smoother. I also introduced a few key catchphrases that I hoped would help the students remember some important things about using the XO and creating a good classroom environment. The first one was "you have the power" meaning that each student was in charge of monitoring their own battery life and raising their hand to call for a charger when the light turned red and it needed to be plugged in, this way we were not required to grow the 8 eyes and arms of a spider in order to be constantly looking at battery life and hooking up chargers so that the classroom didn't devolve into a massacre of powerless computers. The second phrase was "the best pupil is a helper" which was meant to emphasize that they should rely on and look to each other first for help in understanding things, by showing each other how to do things they would learn better themselves and tale some of the burden off us for explaining everything multiple times. The third and certainly most cliche was "sharing is caring" and this was just to make the point that we wanted them to do good work that they would be proud of and anything that they had done well they should always be ready to share with the class to appreciate what they had done. By the end of the lesson each child was plugging away playing the maze activity and navigating to the homescreen and beyond, and by the time we dismissed them at 12 we had come to several major realizations. First off was that 3 hours each morning was much too long, especially with teacher trainings and Summer Holiday Caravan in the afternoons, so we resolved to have class from 9 to 11 each morning. Second thing was that despite any doubts we had had about our recruitment efforts, we certainly had no issue getting 100 students and as soon as possible we would need to finalize the list of those that were registered and take many of them to the other campus before out small hall exploded. Above all we realized that we were going to have an awesome summer and that working with all the students who were so excited it almost provided enough electricity to power the room would be an incredible experience. All said we were pretty darn tired though, and an after lunch nap before hitting the villages with the caravan was highly in order.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The OLPC Launchapalooza!

When i previously said "all that has to be done is have the launching" i perhaps misrepresented, or was rather, ignorant of, the massive undertaking that this would be, so let me begin by describing some of the preparations. On Sunday we went to the market, which was experience enough in itself, several of the other volunteers had been before to buy fabric for dresses (of which there is a really amazing variety of some truly awesome patterns) but I had not been before, and not with the same mission to accomplish. Our journey was lead by Madam Amelia, Mr Orock's wife and a lady of considerable force. We began by haggling over some chickens, which involved pulling them up by their wings and shaking them to test their weight while they squawked and struggled. We ended up buying 8, at which point they were stuffed into a burlap sack we had brought and tossed in the van, while we went in search of the other necessities for the reception that would be a part of our launching ceremony and included fish, nuts, onions, yams, oil, eggs, and wine, though Mr. Orock had already picked some of this up on his way back from Yaounde. Loaded with all of this several hours later we returned home and most of the others fell to napping, while Brittney and I were invited to help, or rather, watch, the preceding taking place behind the house. Though we missed the beheading we did arrive in time for the boiling and plucking of the dear fowl, and the gutting of the fish in great quantities for the fish pie we would be enjoying the previous day. This was some rather gory work and so after a while we begged off to go and prepare our presentation for the next day. We wanted something that introduced the XO in an exciting way that would also demonstrate some of its potential but also not lose the momentum of the speaches and other exciting aspects of the ceremony. What we came up with was to make a short narration asking the audience to imagine a world where every shild had access to their own laptop and where they and their teachers worked together to advance their education, providing the tools to the children to explore on their own and chart a successful path through life and one that would enefit not only them but their communities on the whole as well. We would then announce that that world was not far off and that our program was seeking to do just that. Then we would introduce the star of the show, the XO laptop, and have an XO hooked up to a pair of speakers greet the audience and announce the launch of our program using the Speak activity, really giving a face to associate these mysterious computers with. With this and a prayer we decided to retire for the night and finish with the preparations the next morning, with the ceremony scheduled to start at 10 am, Africa Time of course. The next day we had breakfast with the other volunteers and Madame Amelia took care to inform us that she and the other kitchen help had been up to 2 am the cooking for the occassion, a tremendous effort for which we were extremely greatful. We arrived at the Hall at the Jamadianle School arounf 10, having spent some time packing the 20 boxes containing all 100 of the laptops into a van to take over and set up. Once we arrived at the hall we found that the other volunteers had already arrived and there were also a good many kids chatting in the white and purple chairs we had set up the previous day. There were several tables set up nice with table clothes, presumably for the more distinguished clientel that would be arriving to join in the occassion. We quickly unloaded the laptops and set them up around the long table in the center, and then fell to our number one pasttime, waiting. As we sat the rain started to come down even harder and we began to doubt that anyone would brave downpour to attend our launching ceremony, but before too long people began to arrive, along with a massive speaker system and the rest of the UAC staff and we were ready to rock and roll. Among the officials that arrived were the Director of the school project in Mamfe, Mr. Orock's hometown and a place we would be bringing the XO's later in the summer, the directors of several sister NGO's there to support the UAC, the Regional Delegate for Basic Education, the Regional Delegate for Youth Affairs, the Mayor of Buea, and several other important personages. To this distinguished audience we made our introductions and began our presentation. After the centerpiece XO announced the official launch and thanked everyone for attending all of the audience erupted in applause for its computerized performance and the Regional Delegate for Basic Education and then the Mayor delivered long and strident speeches that the audience cheered on at several occassions, and Mr. Orock made his own address to the crowd. During these precedings several of us were called outside to give interviews to the TV station crew that was present and we tried to but on our most professional demeanors for the cameras. The ceremony cumlminated in the government officials each presenting one of the XO's to one of the teachers from the Jamadianle school and we then gave the teachers a mini lesson to demonstrate some of the more impressive features. By this point the time was long and we were hungry for the meal that was to arrive a little later, delayed we were later to learn because the van had become stuck in the mud between Mr. Orock's house and the school. After the officials had drunk their wine and finally moved on, we stacked up the chairs and returned to the volunteer house triumphant, full of confidence that the launching was a success and we were prepared to start class that wednesday...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Teacher training pictures

It was teacher training on Tuesday and we didn't get started as far from on time as one might expect (i mean, TIA...) just as we did expect though, it was raining heavily, but to be honest I think it gave the small dirty classroom that served as the Jamadianle school's main hall before they moved to the knew and bigger location some miles away some atmosphere and made all of us who were working inside feel a little closer. At least that's the way I try to look at the rain situation, for looking at it any other way would perhaps be rather dire as it is raining almost every day now. But on to the actual training :) we had about 15 teachers show up, including the Head Teacher of the primary school, and the Head Teacher of the nursery. Most of the teachers were well dressed in traditional looking attire and appeared to be in their thirties, quite a contrast with many of the Rwandan teachers who were quite a bit younger. We started out the training by mainly focusing on the fundamentals of the XO, how to open and close programs, how to turn on and shut down the computer, how to navigate the different views etc. We then went through a short sample lesson involving Record and Write, where they took a picture of themselves and copy and pasted it into write so they could label it. We also showed them several more of the XO's features including how to make a spreadsheet in Write, something that was very practical for their own use in the classroom and with which the head nursery instructor immediately began to compile a table of her students and their contact info with. 2 hours into the training and we decided to wrap it up, feeling like any more would be too much to introduce all at once and besides we were getting pretty hungry for lunch. Many of the teacher seemed very pleased and several approached me with questions about using the computers in their classrooms and were also eager to further explore the laptops at the next training, which we will be having weekly for the duration of the program. All in all this training went perhaps better than I had expected and I think the teachers may really be as open to them, given real evidence and a thorough understanding of their potential, as the Mr. Orock, the director of the UAC, has said on many occasion, though at one point one teacher did ask to speak privately with us at some point and I can only postulate that there may be skeptics among them who we would do well to sit down with and discuss rather than just read the feel of the room. All that remains to be done now is the grand launching ceremony on Monday, after which we will have another, more in depth training on Tuesday, in preparation for the start of classes and the Summer Holiday Caravan come this Wednesday. I can hardly wait!