Bois D’Avril: Classroom Observations

Back in Haiti, everyone. Arrived in Bois D’Avril last night and spent the morning observing classes at the local school. If I’m going to be working in education here, I need to get a better understanding of what’s going on in lots of different locations. All of our other laptop projects outside of Port-au-Prince are in market towns, but Bois D’Avril is a small farming village up in the mountains. I first came here back in the summer to set up the laptops; while I’m here I stay with John and Deb, a Canadian couple who have been here for 33 years and really care about making a small but lasting difference.

The school’s expanded within the last year from around 30 students to around 60. There are four teachers and four classrooms, teaching grades K-5. There’s not enough space in the little yellow school building for everyone, so fourth and fifth graders meet in the downstairs area of John and Deb’s home. That’s also where our laptop project is housed.

Class starts at 8 in the morning, stop for a snack / recess break at 10:30, and resumes around 11. On Fridays they go until 12 only; the rest of the week they go until 2. The kids just got down with the state exams, and this coming Monday will be their last day before winter vacation.

1st Grade

I started the morning in the first-grade class. Christelle, the school’s director, sat in a tiny room (about the size of a walk-in closet) crammed with 8 kids, desks, and a chalkboard. In Haiti, students normally sit in rows on benches with sloped writing surfaces. This room had some of those, but there was also a round table, probably donated.

Obligatory cute kids photo.

Obligatory cute kids photo.

Christelle opened the lesson by introducing me and encouraging the kids to ask me questions. I ended up answering and asking “What is your name?” eight different times. Christelle asked the kids if they had used the computers and used the fact that the computers have a turtle to transition to a silly rhyme about a turtle from the textbook. The kids had heard it before and tried to recite it, but it was nonsensical and in French, so I doubt they knew what they were saying. Then, Christelle started language class turning to a page about . I’m pretty sure the book was intended for French practice because the chapter title was in French, but Christelle did all the discussion in Creole. She asked the kids what they saw in the pictures and pointed out the different pieces of the car like the tire and the engine, as well as tools like wrenches. The kids seemed to know more or less what was going on, and contributed when they could. Christelle emphasized throughout that going to school and studying hard is important: “if you study hard, you can get a car like this someday? And what if your car breaks? If you study hard, you’ll have money to pay the mechanic.”

IMG_20141212_113007188 (Medium)

After that, the children pulled out their own books and opened to a page about the letter ‘S.’ Christelle told them that ‘S’ is the first letter in “silans”; one girl muttered “segond” and Christelle congratulated her for making the connection. Then, the kids read some syllables to review other letter sounds – just random combinations of vowels and consonants that they recited line by line in unison. Most of them seemed to know what they were doing – every so often, one would mess up and go to the next column instead of the next row, and they’d still get it right. Christelle had to break the rhythm several times in order to remind them that the accented e sound is shorter than the regular e sound.

Numbers 1 - 100. Numbers 1 – 100.

When I returned to the classroom after snack / recess break to take photos, the kids were copying down the numbers from 1 – 100, which Christelle had written on the blackboard for them. Christelle was setting up ID card photos with some people from the community, so she couldn’t be in the room with them and might have just been giving them something to do.

Kindergarten

The kindergarten class was in a larger room decorated with flags. The 15 students were grouped at round tables and the young male teacher stood at the front of the room at a chalkboard. Not all the students were facing him, but at least at the beginning of the lesson most seemed to be paying attention. The teacher would write a letter on the board, and then pair it up with several vowels: “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, and “u.” First, for example, the kids said “That’s the letter F!” in unison. Then, the teacher made the letter’s sound for them (“f” says “fffffff”) and had the students all repeat it. Then, he asked: “What do ‘f’ and ‘a’ make?” and pointed to the syllable; the class said “fa” together. The teacher went down the list, stopping to correct the student’s pronunciation of “e” and “u” each time – the French versions of these vowels are different from the Creole version. The teachers’ questions and the students’ responses were in French, but the repetition made it easy for the students to understand. The kids applauded after this process was finished for each letter.

The teacher was getting a little frustrated with the pronunciation problems (and the students were getting a little bored), so he kept his patience and transitioned to a “circle the vowel” activity. He wrote the vowels up on the board, including ‘y’ this time. He wrote a series of words underneath. No one knew what a vowel was when he asked, but the first kid he called up to the board successfully circled all of them, maybe by just looking at the shapes. The next two kids both struggled and took a long time; the class lost interest quickly and started chatting among themselves and trying to get my attention. The teacher kept pushing valiantly through things. Some of the words he wrote on the board were in Creole, but most were in French. After the vowel activity, the teacher wrote up the vowels again and reminded the kids that “these are vowels and they are very important.” Then, he moved on to colors, which most people participated in loudly. The teacher made sure to show the cards a second time to a table that was being particularly quiet. After break, the teacher passed out coloring books and crayons, and everyone got to work, demonstrating some impressive staying-in-the-lines skills.

Throughout the class, the teacher seemed to be consulting a textbook that he held in his hand, behind his back. You have to go through his room to get to the supply room and bathroom, so class was constantly interrupted by passing students. The supply room also had a bed: at one point, when a girl fell asleep, the teacher carried her back there for a nap.

2nd & 3rd Grade

I moved on to the second and third graders, a group of 17 combined into one classroom and seated on desk-benches in front of a board. Roberta, their teacher, was calling them individually to the front to check their prepared reading in French. Some had a page and a half (a few paragraphs) to read; others were just pronouncing words next to pictures. Roberta was seated, held the book, and pointed to the words with a black permanent marker that someone had to procure from the supply room. Most of the kids read fairly quickly and had decent pronunciation. The few mistakes Roberta corrected them on were errors that resulted from guessing too quickly: “retire des sandals” (take off shoes) as opposed to the correct “retire des privileges” (take away privileges) and “commencement” (beginning) vs. “commerçant” (merchant). But, those words also really didn’t make too much sense in the context of the passage. Roberta checked student understanding with the translation section printed underneath each passage. Students were supposed to translate Creole sentences into French, but the sentences were from the passage, so all they had to do was find the appropriate point and read. I was glad the kids could read Creole, and at least they’d done their homework because they found the “translations” pretty quickly for the most part.

When I came back after the break, Roberta had written “Je vais tous les jours a l’ecole” (I go to school every day) on the board and the students were copying it to practice their handwriting, in cursive. Each kid had a notebook paper with 25 lines, and they were supposed to go all the way down the page, one line at a time. Of course, I was a welcome distraction in this scenario. One kid asked me to write a sentence to “prove that you know how to write”; then everybody was trying that trick. Roberta went around the room checking papers and telling kids to write the each sentence out instead of doing the words one at a time in columns. The students often forgot a letter at some point and then continued to make the same mistake on all the subsequent sentences. Two sisters in the front row finished quickly and spent the rest of class flipping through their science textbooks and singing. Everyone else struggled. Most got halfway down the page, although others did manage to get it done closer towards the end of class.

Teacher Interviews

Over break and as classes were ending, I had the chance to talk to the teachers. None of them are Bois D’Avril locals – they’re all from the city, Port-au-Prince, and they go home on the weekends. Christelle’s been making the trips for three years; the other two just started this school year, 3 months ago (I think some of the regular folks are out on maternity leave). Roberta has 3 years of teaching experience, whereas the male teacher had 6, working with an international organization. Both of them studied education in seminaire.

I asked the male teacher whether he learned about how to teach reading in school or from his international organization. He explained that he’s had to come up with his own methods, suited to Haiti and the government curriculum, because neither experience really prepared him. I talked with Roberta about the students’ French reading abilities. She’s proud of how far they’ve come. I asked if they ever get time to practice writing and she explained it’s all copying things down from the board. Both teachers used cursive (ekriti kole) when writing, which I personally think is more difficult to read than print. Roberta explained that it’s faster to write than print. It also seemed to be what textbooks wanted for the sections where a student was supposed to write something.

Some of the parents started coming around as everything was wrapping up. Most all of them are farmers, raising pepper, carrots, and potatoes on the steep slopes. Some can read. Roberta told me that kids can also get help from the older kids with their homework.

Christelle and I also talked a little bit about the 4th and 5th graders, who I didn’t get a chance to see. Many of them don’t have parents and are very difficult to control – she’s basically given up on them, and is much more hopeful about the first graders. The 4th and 5th grade teacher is also male and recently hired; the other day he attempted to beat everyone with a belt for not doing their homework. Deb wants to get rid of him, but Christelle’s in charge, and recruiting teachers who are willing to come all the way up here is difficult.

Overall, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting any of this, but it was worthwhile to see it in action as an observer – normally when I’m visiting somewhere, I’m busy working or I just have other roles besides a pair of eyes. It’s clear that the teachers I saw really care about the kids and are pushing them to succeed. I should also note that the Friday after exams and before winter break is not a good time to really make any judgments about the actual situation.
But it looks like at some point teachers were getting tired and running out of things to do with the kids, hence the more mindless activities like copying the numbers. Classes are small enough here and the teachers have enough support to do things differently, but those kinds of changes will take some creativity and willingness to adapt on the part of both the teachers and the students. The teachers were taught with these same methods and it worked for them, after all.
This is where I’m thinking technology might be helpful – it’s a new, fresh context for the kids to apply what they’re learning and explore new things. But, the 4th and 5th graders have apparently been skipping those classes; others are excited but it will take time before they really understand these machines. The kids here have never heard of Facebook or Google; they don’t even have phones. I’m actually excited about that because I think it means they will be more open to the possibilities than kids who think they already know what computers are for, but it still means this will take time.

Last Full Day

Can’t quite believe it, but tomorrow my plane takes off and I head off to college. I think one of the things I’ll miss most about Haiti is how many choices I have – about where I want to go, what I want to buy, and who I want to spend time with, plus how I react to everything. Compared to my life as a teenager in the suburbs, things here are cheap, convenient, and fresh. To give you an idea of what I’ll be missing when I leave, here’s a summary of how I spent my last full day in Haiti.

The story of today should actually start the night before. Last night, I stayed up until 11:30 or so with a bunch of the orphanage boys. Between 12 and 15, they’re old enough to take care of themselves for the most part but young enough that they don’t have to go get a job over the summers. They’re the perfect group to mess around with the computers, basically. Perched on a bunkbed, installing software, trying to load webpages, and taking photos, with all these boys crowded around me, I felt a little like Wendy in the Peter Pan movie that was on television earlier that day.

Anyway, this morning I wake up at 7:30, which is late here – the day starts as soon as it’s bright enough to start cooking breakfast. The kids give me time to eat and bathe, but then they’re ready to get started on some laptop repair – some of the cameras don’t seem to be working, and I want to try reconnecting the cables. Everyone clusters around when I bring out the screwdriver. “She’s doing an operation on it,” they say. One kid, Hansley, helps me out, handing me screws and holding down different components. I hand over the screwdriver to him and have him do the next two machines.

Then I’m off to a school in Croix-des-Bouquets to surprise Ruben, who’s teaching there. On my way from the station, I attempt to buy a drink. Suddenly a police car pulls up and all the street vendors start packing their things up before a guard can come out and harass them. “Give me the money quickly!” the woman says. I’m amused – I haven’t ever had anyone tell me something like that before.

As I follow her through the crowd to collect my change, I see another vendor who’s got a gold bottle with a black top in his bucket. I get my money back and buy from him instead, since this is the elusive “Gold Ragaman.” Regular Ragaman is one of my favorite drinks: full of caffeine and sugar, sweetened with ginseng. Ever since I found out “Gold Ragaman” existed, I’ve been looking for it, but until today I’d never gotten the chance to try it. Turns out the gold version has a delicious citrus tang to it. I quickly conclude that it’s kind of the best thing ever, and definitely worth the hunt.

Turns out I misinterpreted a text message and there’s no class today anyway, so I head back to the station. When I arrive, I immediately get the sense that something’s off. Maybe it’s just the fact that the corner is clear of merchants – no cell phone guys with all the fancy gadgets laid out, no fried plaintain women sizzling the next batch, no guys balancing sacks of water on their heads. There’s lots of police around. I pause for a moment but everyone else is just going about their business, so I go ahead and cross the street to find a taptap.

A couple of bottles come flying over a wall and smash on the street. Everyone who’s standing around waiting for a taptap runs between some nearby buildings. I try to ask what’s going on. People tell me the police made all the street vendors go away. I ask if this happens often and they say yes. No one seems really alarmed but they moved here fast and they’re giggling.

Everything seems clear so we come out again and resume standing around waiting for transportation. But, when we try to signal empty taptaps to stop and pick us up, they just drive right past. Everyone moves further down, out of sight of the gas station, but suddenly no taptaps are coming anymore. “Shit,” the guy next to me mumbles.

Finally, a box truck rolls up – this is a big truck with benches along the edges, ropes to hold on to in the middle, and holes cut out for ventilation. No one really likes riding in them, but we all know it’s our only choice so we hop on. A guy sitting near me stands up and starts urging people to accept Jesus. The guy next to me tunes in, saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, but most people ignore the sermon.

I arrive at the next station and walk to Jeanide’s house without incident. Every smashed bottle I see in the street makes me wonder, but I’m not too worried, or I wouldn’t be walking down the street with 5 solar panels in my arms. I do notice that there are more police out on the road, and when turning a corner I see a parade of guys blowing plastic horns and holding up signs going down another street. I can’t tell if it’s a rara celebration or a protest.

“I knew from the news there would be protest,” Jeanide tells me when I show up. A former president, Aristide, has been on trial and it’s got everyone on edge. Plus, 300 criminals escaped from a prison recently, making the police look bad. Everything’s connected, obviously. I can’t just leave the house in the morning and hop on a bus and expect everything to always go normally. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Haiti: the fact that actions can have such an impact. Haitians put a lot of thought into what it means to be Haitian – you hear it in every song, on every advertisement, in the conversations on the bus.

I go to the orphanage in Ti Plas Cazeau next, to drop off some items and check up on their server. Turns out everything’s working – it just wasn’t powered on. I meet with Dyna, the teacher we’re appointing as director of the laptop program for the schoolyear that’s coming, and we talk about the new opportunities that are available now that Internet-in-a-Box is finally working.

After that I try to go to MSC+, the largest hardware store here, so I can check up on what charge controllers are available: the one in Ansapit broke yesterday. There’s a traffic jam, though, so I don’t make it before closing time. Instead, I stay on the taptap and ride all the way to end of its route, and then I take another, and another. I want to try to find a school my boss was telling me about. I remember seeing a sign for it going down the road.

I keep my eyes peeled, but I don’t see the sign – either it’s already been painted over or it’s just blocked by a gate or a parked car or something. The guy sitting next to me strikes up a conversation, practicing his English by asking me questions about where I’m from and what I’m up to. I try to avoid his not-too-subtle requests for my contact information. Sometimes, I wish a conversation on the bus could really just be a conversation on the bus, and didn’t necessarily have to lead to getting my phone number. But, that’s another thing I love about Haiti: the fact that people actually talk to each other on public transportation, when there’s something worth talking about.

I get Fefe to meet me on the road and take me to his house for a visit. I meet his father, talk about the future, and help him edit a brochure for his tourism business. By then it’s already getting dark, so I end up jumping into the cab of a truck. The driver asks me to pay 15 goud for the ride, which is probably too much, but I give it to him anyway because night is coming and that’s the time when you start running out of options for getting from place to place.

I start thinking about where I’m going to spend the night. Jeanide’s place is closer, only one taptap ride away. But I figure I’ll see her tomorrow anyway, passing through on the way to the airport, and I’ve got some business to finish up at the orphanage. I find a taptap to take me to the closest station, even though I have to wait a little longer for it to fill up with people. From the station, the taptap I grab ends up crammed with bodies – everyone’s headed home, and this might be the last taptap of the night. I can’t see past the people and I end up missing my stop, which is embarrassing – you think you always know exactly where you’re going, but sometimes at night things change.

I get off and start walking – I’m about 15 minutes away. Along the way, I buy some fried food and munch on it. A 50 goud bill fell out of my pocket somewhere along the way, so buying the food ends up taking the last of my small change. I only have 1000 goud notes in my wallet – the equivalent of $25 USD, and much too large to buy anything. I try asking a drink shop for change anyway. The woman in charge exclaims, “Oh no! That’s much too big!” She’s shocked at the very thought. The woman sitting next to her asks me where I’m from and informs me that she herself lives in Boston and is here visiting family. She introduces me to her son. We talk a little and then I start walking away. They call me back. “Are you thirsty?” They give me a bottle of water, even though I have no way of paying for it.

By the time I finally arrive back at the orphanage, everyone’s already asleep, but Silar’s wife hears me slip in and sits up. “We left some food on the table for you,” she says. I’m still pretty hungry – the fried stuff was the first thing I remembered to eat since breakfast.

As you can see, over the course of just a day I make tons of mistakes and bad decisions, but I’m also trying to adapt really quickly and hopefully not repeat those same errors again. I can only hope each day of college will be just as educational as a day in Haiti.

Unleash Kids Workshop: Bring A Story To Life

Today we launched the first of what I hope will be many monthly workshops over at our Delmas28 location. A total of four of our most experienced teachers – Fefe, Dyna, Jeanide, and Ruben – worked with a group of 18 students to help them produce a story using Scratch.

As you might have gathered from the number of teachers needed, this activity is more advanced than the stuff we typically do to introduce the kids to the computers. Scratch is a programming language developed for kids by MIT. You click and drag on blocks to give the commands. With the ability to manipulate appearance, sound, and interactions between objects, you can make games, animations, and basically anything you’re willing to put your mind to make happen.

Students getting started

Students getting started

Our theme for the day was “a time when something hurt me.” I came up with it the day my phone got stolen – I was messing around on Scratch to prepare for the workshop, I needed the story to tell, and that was the first thing that popped into my head.

One of the older orphanage boys, Peterson, had been watching me program the thief’s gaze and movements towards my cell phone. I asked him to tell me his own story about a time when something hurt him. He immediately launched into an account of a time he got into an argument with his father. “Wait, wait,” I found myself saying. “Go over it more slowly. Who were the participants? What did your father do, and how did you react?”

Once we had all the characters in place, we typed out the dialogue for each one, tweaking the timing for each one to make sure the text was on screen long enough for someone to read. We drew two pictures of Peterson’s birth certificate – one whole, and one torn in half – and had it switch from one to the other at the story’s climax.

There’s a satisfaction to reducing something painful to its bare elements. By programming, you get some measure of control over the situation. I was a little nervous about choosing something so heavy as a topic for a kids’ workshop, but it turns out they were ready for it. Most stories are about someone in trouble, after all, and adults can be wrong when they assume kids crave Disneyfied happy endings. Kids have a strong sense of right and wrong – ever try to cross over the lines of a hopscotch game? They understand that bad things can happen to good people, and they want to know why.

Physical punishment is part of Haitian culture, and quite a few kids told us about a time when their parents beat them even though they didn’t feel they deserved it. We also had several tales about dogs on the street stealing meat or biting people. Others wrote about pets that died, fights with friends, and motorcycle accidents.

Our job was to bring each and every story to life. We started out by asking the students to fill out a simple form, listing characters, actions, objects, and reactions. Then, they had to find or draw a picture for each one, along with a background.

Deciding which commands to select.

Deciding which commands to select.

It was the students’ first time using the computers, so they needed a lot of help and encouragement. One boy wanted to write about his cell phone being stolen, but he couldn’t find a phone in the list of preloaded images. I showed him the option for drawing one, but he seemed a bit daunted. The guy next to him had a picture of a person and a picture of a bicycle, but he couldn’t make the guy sit on the bike because they were facing opposite ways. I told him to play around with the rotate and flip options until it looked right. The girl next to him had chosen all of her images already, but she needed a belt in her father’s hand as the finishing touch, and refused to try to draw one.

It was extremely rewarding to watch them all figure it out. When the boy with the cell phone called me back over, I saw he had drawn not just one but two phones, and also added a laptop. “I had all that stuff sitting with me on the bench while I was studying, and then I fell asleep,” he explained. I helped him program a thief to come in and swipe one of the phones. Watching the finished product, he shook his head and commented, “Hey, at least he didn’t take my laptop and the other cell phone.”

His friend with the bicycle had finally gotten all the pieces facing the right way. He showed me a second drawing he had made, with the guy falling over the bike. “I want the bike to move for a little bit, and then I want it to change to the accident.” I showed him the Movement category and asked him to choose which ones would work.We tried a couple, but kept on having problems because the “person” object wasn’t turning at the same time as the “bike” object. Eventually, we made it easy on ourselves by just combining them into one object that moved with one set of commands.

The girl next to him was busy typing out some text. She’d found a “repeat” block and set things up so that the belt moved up and down three times while her father said, “I told you not go to outside.” She may not have been comfortable with drawing at first, but she was creative enough to do something much more complicated – animation.

Presenting the final product

Presenting the final product

There were some mishaps. Everyone laughed when one girl forgot to program a Coke bottle. On the screen, her character moves over to another character and says, “Here is the Coke” but the Coke bottle itself stays behind in the corner. Not everyone got a chance to finish their story. They took longer to adapt to the computers than they’d bargained for, so we ran out of time. The teachers themselves were sometimes confused on which commands to choose. They hadn’t had much time to practice with Scratch, and each story needed something different. I liked the simplicity of “character, action, object, reaction” for these stories, but it might be better to constrain things even more. Have everyone write about transportation, for example, so everyone’s using the same set of movement commands to program everything, whether they’re talking about a plane, train, or ship.

The good news is, next week we get to try again – this same group will be back for the next three Saturdays to do some more work with Scratch. And then next month, we’ll start another workshop, on a new topic. Can’t wait to see what people come up with.

Anyway

When you’ve just stepped off a taptap and suddenly you don’t feel your phone in your pocket anymore, your first reaction is confusion. You know exactly what happened, but you don’t want to believe it. You’re trying to decide what to do next, but there’s really nothing to do. You stand there, scanning the crowd milling about for someone who’s already had plenty of time to get away, and you say, “Someone stole my phone!”

It’s already too late – your phone is long gone. You start to realize how bad this is. It’s a smartphone that you paid a sizable chunk of money for. It’s more than that – it’s something personal. Your photos, contacts, emails, they’re all gone. Your one tool for connecting with everyone, on both sides of the ocean. The thing that’s been traveling around everywhere with you for the past couple of months.

Then the adrenaline starts wearing off and you start processing things. First, all of the little stupidities that lead to this. You’re wearing your loosest pair of pants, which made it easy for the thief to reach into your pocket without you noticing. Your phone shouldn’t have been in your pocket in the first place, and it wouldn’t have been, if the bag you normally put it in hadn’t ripped yesterday. You should have been a bit smarter. People have warned you about this intersection before. You were really asking for it, casually slipping your telephone into your pocket like that and not even considering the potential danger.

And that’s where the problems start, because everything you do here in Haiti has an extra layer to it. Every time someone asks you whether taking public transport and traveling alone is really safe, you’ve been able to respond, “I’ve never been robbed or felt threatened.” Now you can’t say that anymore. It’s ruined.

And this is the part where you’ve got to be really careful about not overreacting. This is not a sign that public transportation is too dangerous n Haiti. For one thing, the same risks apply in New York – people just learn to put their gadgets in a safer place. And you actually love taking taptaps. Sharing a vehicle with other people is better for the environment, traffic congestion, and probably your soul. And every time you hop into one you’re defying the perception that all foreigners who come here keep themselves closed off from the people they’re supposed to be helping. Plus, they’re cheap – with the money you’ve saved from taking them instead of paying for a car and driver, you could buy yourself several fancy phones.

There’s still the nagging feeling that you’ve been foolish, that you should have been more alert and less trusting. This is the first time you’ve ever been robbed. It’s the first time a stranger has done something to hurt you. This is the part where you’ve got to be really careful. You can’t let one bad person affect the way you see all the others.

Don’t let this change your belief that most people are good. They’ll often even go out of their way to help you. When a guy standing nearby heard you talking about your phone, he led you all the way to the nearest Digicel office so you could buy a new card with the same number. Being white makes you a target, but it also means people know you’re in foreign territory and could use a little extra help. You had no clue that Digicel recovery service existed.

Of course, in the end this has nothing to do with whether or not the majority of the population would steal your phone given the opportunity. Your reaction is actually a choice you make based on the kind of person you want to be and the world you want to have. It has nothing to do with other people and what they’d do. It has to do with what you want to do.

There’s this poem, “Anyway”, that kind of sums up the attitude I’d like to have (I’m still working on it…not a saint by any means). It’s attributed to Mother Teresa (of course) but apparently it was actually written by a guy called Kent M. Keith.

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;

Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;

Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;

Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;

Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;

Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;

Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;

Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;

It was never between you and them anyway.

Of course, in the meantime, while this utopia of yours is still under construction, you seriously shouldn’t keep your phone in your pocket. Or at least wear some tighter pants so that if they try to take it, you can feel it.

Doing It All

I talked a little bit about the work in Lascahobas while we were doing it, but now that it’s done it’s worth taking a look back at just how much went in to the site.

First, a lot of preparation is needed to get materials ready before they’re sent down to Haiti, so that installation is as simple as possible upon arrival. Some physics students at Randolph-Macon took on the task of building and testing out the rollable solar set-up. Meanwhile, our schoolserver team figured out how to run the network directly off the batteries being charged by two other panels.

Testing out the solar set-up.

Testing out the solar set-up.

The solar team at Randolph-Macon. Shuyan, Conner, Dan.

The solar team at Randolph-Macon. Shuyan, Conner, Dan.

Our first full day in Hinche was then dedicated to getting that solar system in place – we knew we couldn’t do anything without a source of electricity. Shuyan worked on the portable, rollable system, and a team of professionals from DigitalKap came in to install the other two panels securely and permanently.

Setting up the charge controller

Shuyan setting up the charge controller

Discussing where to put the solar panels

Discussing where to put the solar panels

It ended up being a really long day. The DigitalKap guys promised a secure install, and of course “security” means different things to different people. Bernadette, the school director, wanted them to cover the panels with metal flaps. Ultimately, they came up with a solution that satisfied everyone, welding on a brace to make everything more secure. Of course, that meant taking down the panels, going into town, and finding a welder. So, the job wasn’t finished until really late that night, around 9 or 10: they had to run a light-bulb off a generator in order to be able to see to set up the final pieces. The important thing, though, is that Bernadette feels the panels are protected. It’s her school, and our goal is to minimize the worries we cause her as much as we can.

Discussing options with Bernadette

Discussing options with Bernadette on the roof

Hoisting up the solar panels

Hoisting up the solar panels

The welded brace.

The welded brace.

Other security measures had to be taken as well. Since the rollable solar panel has to be put out and taken down every day, Bernadette recommended hiring a guy to build a tower and install a door to give easy access.

Constructing a tower

Constructing a tower

In the computer room itself, another guy put in a shelf for the network equipment and charge controller.

We constructed a shelf to keep the boxes with blinking lights out of the reach of kids.

We constructed a shelf to keep the boxes with blinking lights out of the reach of kids.

On Day 2, we leaped into our job of fixing laptops. The grand total, I’m proud to announce, was 126. That means they had their data collected, were unlocked, had their date updated, had their firmware upgraded, and had HaitiOS installed. 55 more laptops are in various stages of disrepair – hopefully some can be salvaged at a later date, or at least used for spare parts.

One big obstacle was electricity: the city power comes on at night, but other times there’s no real guarantee you’ll have it. In order to work on the laptops, we needed to be able to turn them on, so we had to get creative. For tasks like collecting data, unlocking, and changing the date, we switched out dead batteries for some that we’d charged ahead of time, doing the job, and then taking those good batteries back out to use in the next set of machines. Basically, we had a bunch of batteries and laptops going back and forth, working in pairs to get those stacks of unfinished machines lower and lower. For tasks that take longer or require a power source, like upgrading firmware and installing HaitiOS, we carried the laptops back to the rectory where we were sleeping and stayed up until 11 or midnight finishing the process.

Shuyan and Herodion helping to transort laptops

Shuyan and Herodion bringing laptops back

On top of all that, we also wanted to make sure the local teachers understood how to use all the fun toys we were working so hard to bring them. Every morning started out with a training session in the XO laptops. We also went over the solar system and the Internet set-up, and we invited kids to attend on the last few days for some trial classes.

Meeting to review the Haiti Course Guide

Meeting to review the Haiti Course Guide

As you can probably gather by now, none of this could have happened without a fantastic team and a lot of careful planning. Plus, support from Ben Burrell’s church back at home in Virginia, which was really needed to make everything possible.

In addition to the work at Bernadette’s AFAL school, we also visited another school in the area that received laptops and fixed a total of 65 machines there. Unfortunately, this school isn’t as lucky as Bernadette’s – they don’t have a relationship with a church back in the States that provides funding to make things happen. Working with Bernadette’s school and Ben’s church has made me realize just how essential it is to have a source of funding: so teachers can get paid for the extra work they’re doing in the computer classes, so electricity can flow, so an Internet connection can happen.

So grateful for what we’ve been able to accomplish in Lascahobas thanks to everyone’s efforts. We’ll keep moving forward as much as we can with every one of our locations, but I know this school will go farther than many others thanks to all it’s able to receive.

The "other school"

The “other school”

Worth It

More than halfway through our time here in Lascahobas, and the question that keeps running through my head has to do with value. We’re doing a lot of work here: installing network and solar systems, conducting training seminars, repairing large quantities of machines. I don’t mind that we’re not being paid for it, but I do wonder how much we should be paid. How much are all of these things worth to the people they’re supposed to be helping?

First of all, allow me to complain about the condition of the computers. The first thing Jeanide decided to do with them once we’d gotten the sack open was clean everything with a damp rag – these things were pretty filthy. Okay, maybe the kids were scared of using water to wash them. But the computers are damaged in other ways as well. Smashed screens, missing antenna, keys peeled off from keyboards, cracked batteries. Not all of them are that bad, of course, but these are definitely the worst cases I’ve ever seen.

One school's storage center.

One school’s storage center.

I know in a way this is a good sign. There’s such a thing as a computer that’s too clean, and I’m glad these machines aren’t suffering from that. They’ve clearly been used. And I love how the kids make the laptops their own by adding personal touches like writing their name on the front and drawing little pictures on the keyboard.But in the end, you have to start wondering how much the students really respected the computers when they return them in this kind of state.

No excuses because they’re kids. If I’m working for a group called Unleash Kids, that means I have a basic belief in people’s ability to look after the things they value, no matter what their age. And don’t tell me this is because they’re Haitian or because they’re poor. People tell me my ideas about taking care of things are very American. Not many people here own nice stuff, so apparently it’s a foreign concept to maintain something that costs a lot. Except, I’m not buying that. Most Haitians I know dress better than me – shining their shoes, keeping their white dresses spotless for church. And when people depend on something for a living, like their motorcycle, they take pride in making it look as good as possible.

So you begin to wonder why some people don’t have the same attitude about their computers. Maybe we’ve all got messed-up concepts about the value of technology in general, actually. Every time we put the laptops on display at a tech fair, people come up and ask, “Oh, are these the $100 laptops?” That’s what they remember about them. The price point.

But again, it’s not price that’s important. It’s value, and value only happens when someone puts in the time to make it. The other day, while I was carrying computers down the road to the school, a kid called out, “If there’s one that’s not good, just give it to me!” Then he realized that a broken machine would be useless, and added, “If you want to fix it first, then give me, that’s OK too.” It’s easy to see the problem when we’re talking about whether something’s broken or fixed. But there are so many other opportunities that you miss unless somebody ensures that they happen.

Even when you take out the fancy machines and we’re just talking about teachers standing in front of blackboards, it can be hard to make people see and respect value. I just helped translate a long conversation the other day about teacher salaries. We were asking Bernadette why parents can’t chip in a little bit to pay for their students to attend her school.

Bernadette responded that it’s not exactly an issue of money. It’s not like the parents have absolutely nothing, and it’s not like they aren’t grateful enough for the education their kids are receiving to be willing to pay for it. She’s tried to collect fees before – she had one of her teachers stand in front of the gate on the first day of school so that no one could get past unless they’d paid. But that didn’t work, because no one has the money on hand to pay everything up-front.

Saving money is hard here. Bernadette tries to advise parents to dedicate one chick at the beginning so that once it’s a chicken at the end of the school year they’ll have funds to cover all the kids in the house. But ultimately Bernadette doesn’t have the ability to both educate the parents in smart finances and the children in how to read and write, so she chooses to let the kids attend for free, and Ben’s church raises money to keep everything running.

The school down the road, L’Ecole Mixte Classic, also received laptops from One Laptop Per Child. When we went there to talk to the director, he emphasized that it’s impossible to teach computers if there’s no money to pay the teachers – his term for this is “encouragement.” In all of my reports so far on old One Laptop Per Child projects I complain about how they didn’t bother trying to find local support. But training local teachers means paying local teachers, and it can be really hard to identify whether you’ve got someone competent in each school. So, OLPC decided to just pay a “consultant” to travel between the schools in an area, conducting classes at each one and getting compensated more per week than most of those teachers make in a whole month. But taking the school out of the equation has other consequences, of course. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of who you can trust. Who’s become valuable to you because of the time and energy they’ve given to the community.

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

Contract for the local guy who OLPC employed

After all this talking, Jeanide and I go to the corner store to get a drink. There are two ways to buy drinks in Haiti: glass bottles that you return, or plastic that you throw away. The glass ones are cheaper, since you’re only paying for the liquid inside. That night at dinner, the priest we’re staying with explains to his friend another reason why glass is better. When you buy the plastic bottle along with the drink it contains, the government receives some tax money. The money is supposed to go to education, but everyone knows the government teachers are overpaid and don’t even show up to work if the school is far away enough from the inspector’s office.

Computers are a tool for carrying information, just like a bottle carries liquid. And you often see trucks loaded up with boxes of bottles, just like I’m getting used to peering into school storage rooms and seeing boxes of computers. I’m glad we’re going the “glass bottle” route and reusing old machines, instead of the “plastic bottle” route of letting time and money go to waste. But it’s still not enough. I guess what I mean is, that famous quote: “Education isn’t the filling of a vessel. It’s the lighting of a fire.” It’s not just a “you get out what you put in” sort of thing: at some point, someone has to be inspired to go even further than we expected with all of this. Only then will any of this actually become worth it.

Lascahobas: We Do It All

Writing this from Lascahobas, a market town in the Central department, where we’re working with a school that received laptops as part of the pilot program back in 2009. If you’ve been following this blog, you know by now how the story goes: the program started out well but then when key people weren’t paid they stopped coming and the computers ended up shoved in the school storage room.

Now, we’re stepping in to do things right the second time around. We’re doing the whole she-bang here: repairing laptops, installing a solar system, connecting a server with Internet-in-a-Box, and of course training teachers how to use everything.

From right to left: Jeanide, Sora, Shuyan, Herodion, and the school gatekeeper.  Solar panel stretched out at our feet.

From left to right: Jeanide, Sora, Shuyan, Herodion, and the school gatekeeper.

We need as many hands as possible to get all that stuff done, so we have a real crack team this time. First off, introductions. Ben Burrell, a computer science professor, is the one who invited us all down here. His church has built up a relationship over the years with AFAL, the local women’s group that runs the school. Shuyan, a student at his college, came down with him to set up some solar stuff. Finally, Jeanide, Ruben, and Herodion are here to help with repairs and training.

Birds'-eye view of Shuyan's set-up.

Birds’-eye view of Shuyan’s charging set-up.

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

Discussing where to put that super-long solar panel.

The first day of work was dedicated to solar. A team of professionals from DigitalKap came in to put in the largest panels securely. Shuyan’s system can just be rolled up and stowed away when the sun goes down, but the other two panels needed to be mounted permanently. It ended up being a really long day. Bernadette, the local director, wasn’t satisfied with the initial frames. She’s had a lot of problems with theft in the past and wanted to make sure these guys did everything possible to make these panels impossible to take. So the team had to go off into town and find a welder to add some braces, which meant the final hook-up didn’t happen until after 9 that night. “I’ll always remember this day,” Ben told me, when we finally clambered into the truck to go home. Turns out even sitting around and “supervising” can be rough when the job takes so long to finish. But I guess we can’t complain, because everything’s running and those panels are as safe as they’ll ever be.

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

Bernadette, the school director, discusses her preferences.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

The team affixes the solar panel while Jeanide looks on.

Working late into the night to finish the job.

After the solar work came the laptops. We don’t always have electricity to power the machines, so throughout this whole trip every task has one extra step to it: removing the dead battery, putting in one that we’ve been able to fully charge, turning on the machine to do whatever we need to do, and taking the good battery out again so we can use it in the next machine. It’s a frustrating necessity, but at least we’ve got this good-bad battery swap down to a rhythm by now, working in pairs to keep the stored electricity going back and forth between the machines we’re checking and the ones we’ve finished.

Bringing the machines out of the supply closet.

Bringing the machines out of the supply closet.[/caption

[caption id="attachment_811" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Wiping the dust off the laptops. Wiping the dust off the laptops.

Reviewing the updating process.

Reviewing the updating process.

All the work pays off when we get to do training and see students and teachers enjoying the refurbished machines. To wrap up, here are some of my favorite shots of them in action.

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Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Preparing computers for the first day of class.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Students getting some shots of sky and trees.

Lots of photos being taken.

Lots of photos being taken.

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Stacking the finished machines.

Stacking the finished machines.

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