Big News

Screenshot from the Haitian Creole version of iloominate, available here:

Screenshot from the Haitian Creole version of iloominate, available here:

Pleased to announce that the book-making software we piloted a few weeks ago has been awarded $12,000 as one of three finalists in the All Children Reading – Enabling Writers competition. The credit goes to Nick Doiron for stepping up as the lead guy on this, and to everyone who offered their help, including Adam Holt, Caryl Bigenho, and Jennifer Shotwell. Over the next few months, we’ll be expanding on what we started; stay tuned for the latest. I know I’m really excited.

Solar for Silar

A little awhile ago, we plugged in the final component to the solar power system here at the orphanage. There’s still some tweaks to be made over the coming week, but I can officially report that everything is actually working. We’ll be able to provide 24/7 power to the server, charge 25 laptops, and light 10 rooms during the evening hours. Before, the city was only giving 5 hours of power a day, on a good day. Now, the 65 kids here don’t have to wait for the grid to switch on. As long as there’s sun, they’ll have access whenever they want to computers and Internet. And there’s plenty of sun here.

I want to take this opportunity to thank three groups that made this possible: Oyster Point Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of City Center, and the Office of Community Engagement at William & Mary. We’ve installed a pretty ambitious set-up here, and we would never have been able to dream so big without their support.

Unloading the panel off the truck.

Unloading the panels off the truck.

Heading up the stairs with one of the panels.

Heading up the stairs with one of the panels.

Silar talking about the right angle for the sun to hit things.

Silar talking about the right angle for the sun to hit things.

Passing wire through the window to the battery room.

Passing wire through the window to the battery room.

Hooking up the panels.

Hooking up the panels.

Of course, none of this would be possible without people also contributing their energy and expertise. Thanks to the Unleash Kids team – this is the fourth solar installation our members have worked on in Haiti, and they’re getting bigger and better every time. Also, shout out to Ben and Shuyan, who stepped in at the last moment to build some charging set-ups for the school they support and then generously let us borrow one to use at the orphanage instead. Finally, Silar himself, the pastor in charge of the orphanage here, used to be an electrician. In the end, when I say “we”, I actually mean “Silar did it while I watched and Adam and George advised on the phone.” Of course, I’m learning a lot through this whole process too, and gradually getting to the point where I can do a little more.

When I went to the hardware store here in Haiti to buy the last pieces, there were some other foreigners also looking at panels. They turned out to be a solar installation group from a university. They asked what I came here for, and the list was a little longer: “Well, we do solar, but we also work with servers and Internet. Plus laptops. And, you know, education.” Sometimes, all those pieces really do feel overwhelming. Often, at least one of them is getting to be extremely frustrating, at any given moment. But, at the end of the day, I’m glad our group is looking at the whole picture. Our volunteers don’t just address half of the problem. We look at it all, and we keep coming back, making improvements, and moving forward.

Lascahobas Workshops: Final Review

After five pretty intense days, it’s worth considering how much was accomplished and how much farther we have to go.

In terms of the actual writing process, I was pretty impressed with what the teachers produced. Many had never used computers before, and I didn’t exactly sit down with them to explain things – they learned about things like pressing the shift key to make an uppercase letter as they went along. The fact that teachers were supposed to be selecting words from a pre-approved list wasn’t as much of a restriction as I thought it would be. They were creative enough, and the lists were long enough, that they could produce a variety of texts that at least made sense. Of course, not everyone actually used the lists to write, and everyone used the lists less and less the more time they spent in the workshop. It was something that happened naturally, as teachers shared books with one another and got more comfortable with trying to tell a story and express themselves on the computer screen. I’m still not sure if it’s something I should have tried to stop. The teachers clearly understood the purpose of the lists, based on the earlier work, and were trying something new. They also told me that if they were integrating these texts into a school program, it would make more sense. If your students have only learned five letters so far, you want books with those five letters. We also talked about how books can be used for different purposes. Books that students can’t read independently because they’re too difficult might make good read-alouds. Perhaps if they’d had a longer time to sit with students and observe whether they were able to read the texts or not, they would make changes to keep things easy on the beginners. I did notice that when we moved into the teaching stage teachers generally chose to work with the texts with more list-words. It might be a question of what the ‘market’ decides in the end. At least now, they have a range of materials to draw from, instead of just government-issued textbooks.

Group shot - all the workshop participants.

Group shot – all the workshop participants.

In terms of teaching, one thing I observed during the tutoring sessions with the teachers is that personal energy and patience may be more important than technique. Of course, some techniques work better than others, but they can vary from student to student, and a good teacher will be able to adapt to each learner. Of course, that also means giving them the training and resources they need in order to be capable of that. Time and energy are resources as much as books – if teachers are working with sixty students at the same time, there’s no way they’ll be able to put any of their training into practice.

So yeah, it all comes down to money in the end. And when your project is partly based on technology, you’ll definitely end up spending larger amounts of time than you planned making sure everything is working. I was lucky to have Nick taking care of that side of things, but even so there were some scary moments: the server would go down and people would lose their work; computers would run out of juice and there would be no replacement batteries because of trouble with the electrical system. Teachers complained about the XO’s small keyboards and slow processing power. I lent them my laptop, Nick lent his, and we found a USB keyboard to plug in, and everyone else just made do.

I think in the end the biggest thing I’m leaving with is my connection with the teachers. We brought together a group of educators and got them talking about how to write in their own language. People didn’t always agree with one another, but the debates were productive and important for the most part. In any institution, change takes a lot of courage and confidence to implement – the teachers have to be brave enough to try something new and the directors have to trust the teachers to know what they’re doing. It’s especially hard in a school, where the government is constantly evaluating performance and the lofty goal of ‘education’ or even ‘literacy’ is so hard to define. I was excited to be having these conversations. People didn’t mind speaking frankly about the tough questions, which in my mind is the first step to making changes.

Fifth Workshop Day: Last Session!

This was the last full day of the workshop, and I’m pleased to report that in many ways it was also the best. Although it was Saturday, people left behind their friends and families in order to get together one last time. We started out by writing some more texts. I told the teachers that we were going to do things a little differently this time with the kids. Instead of using their own texts, they had to choose someone else’s and then provide that person feedback on how it went. We’d made modifications to the server to make it easier for teachers to access all of the books being published there, which encouraged everyone to start editing each other’s texts. Of course, that process sparked debates about what was the “correct” way to write things, in between adding in capital letters and commas and accents. We discussed concepts such as how to make contractions (is it ‘m ap’, ‘map’, or ‘m’ap’?), and there was a particularly rousing debate about whether names get Creolized. Technically, “Roro” should be written “Wowo”, but what if Roro prefers to write his name the first way? The same problem pops up all the time when you’re translating. Is it Internet-in-a-Box, or Entenet-nan-Bwat? Depends on who’s deciding what the value of the name is, sometimes.

Anyway, I was happy to hear everyone talking and making decisions. For the most part, both the editor and the original writer were able to come to a consensus on what to finally put down – perhaps with a consultation from Petiville, our resident Creole teacher. Sometimes, though, the writer would use a phrase the editor wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it was hard to determine who was really “right” about the “right way” to say it. Normally, those debates ended with the editor appealing to the fact that these books are for children – they should include words that everyone would recognize. But, I often took the side of the writer. Doesn’t it lose some of its richness that way? And isn’t a big part of reading being exposed to things you don’t already know?

IMG_20141220_113346009_HDR (Medium)

At that point, kids started showing up, and teachers peeled off into classrooms to work with them in small groups. This time, I saw a lot of the same techniques as before – reading in unison, pointing to the words, prompting the kids to sound things out when they were struggling. I noticed our improvements to the way the app displayed books seemed to be working – we made the words much larger, displayed only three per line, and placed more space between lines. It was all especially important considering that several people would be clustered around the same laptop.

One teacher worked with the kids until they were successfully able to get through the text, and then started talking about how important it was for the kids to “go home and practice reading” in order for them to actually learn it. I recalled the unresolved problem of the overcrowded classrooms from yesterday, and realized the teacher was right. The only way these kids could learn how to read would be if their parents or someone else took the time to help them at home, given how many obstacles the teachers had to overcome during the schoolday.

Once we got together again and talked a little about how things went, I brought up the grant proposal that a team of students from my college and I have been writing, and asked for their input. The basic idea is to use this software to write more books that kids can read on the computers as part of a summer reading camp. We discussed details like dates, how much time for day, and incentives to get people to come. According to the teachers, the parents who lived close to the school would have no problem sending their kids, but we should provide them with a small snack to keep them coming. Teachers recommended restricting the number of kids per teacher to 10 or 15 – we talked about how adding more kids meant more people would be helped but everyone would receive less attention.

We got into a long conversation about what age ranges and grade levels would benefit the most (ages don’t always correlate to grade here, since many students start school late). Everyone seemed to agree that by the end of third grade, kids are comfortable with reading, so the group to target would be kids who have just finished second grade. First-grade graduates can also learn a lot, but since they only begin the alphabet and letter sounds in first grade we shouldn’t go any lower than that.

Once we had grade levels, we started getting into who should participate. We quickly ruled out advanced and middling performers – if teachers were going to invest time and energy into helping someone out, they wanted to target the students who needed it the most. That attitude was a little surprising to me – I was thinking they might be frustrated with the slower students’ lack of progress and make what might be the safer choice, of sticking with the middle group who had at least demonstrated some ability already. But, the teachers were motivated to see some dramatic improvements, so they wanted to start on the bottom. They told me they believed that most of the students having difficulties aren’t innately unintelligent; they just haven’t had access to the same resources and attention as others.

All in all, everyone seemed pretty excited about the idea of moving forward, even though we were all a little unsure about how it would look. If kids were coming from 8 to 12 every weekday over the summer, like the teachers recommended, how would they spend that 4 hours? What extra activities would the teachers integrate to support what they’d normally cover in a lesson? How would they transition from merely controlling a class of 60 pupils to working closely to support a much smaller group? At this point, everyone appreciates that they’ll finally have the resources to make some of this happen, in terms of time and reading material. But, I know we’ve got much longer to go before we’ve got it figured out.

Fourth Workshop Day: The Root of the Problem

The fourth day of the workshop was supposed to start with an hour of work followed by a little time to work with the kids, but unfortunately the kids came early and the teachers came late. The kids ended up waiting while we sat up in the room writing some books, because almost everything people wrote the day before had been lost due to the not-pressing-the-save-button-after-the-first-word issue. I was really frustrated and apologetic about it, and the teachers went ahead and wrote more.

Then, we finally got together with the children to read the texts. My original plan called for one-on-one instruction, but in my discussions with the teachers I discovered they prefer working in groups because “the kids encourage each other.” I decided to go with what they preferred and what they were used to to see what it looked like in action.

I told each teacher to use their own texts for the exercise, so they were working at a range of levels. The kids milling around in the yard were a mix of first- and second-graders, but some teachers had less time than others to make sure the group they selected was in fact appropriate for the book they’d be using.

Some kids who showed up hadn’t really gotten to the stage where they were reading. According to the teachers, first-graders know all the consonants and some of the vowels at this point, but they haven’t necessarily practiced the idea of pairing consonants with vowels yet. Some of the teachers had to start right from the beginning (“this is the letter ‘p’. It says ‘ppppp.’ When you put it together with ‘a’, what do you get?”).

Of course, the advantage of reading in groups is that one kid might be able to make it through even if the others are lost. A lot of reading classes in Haiti feature recitation, where everyone reads in a group and the ones who really can’t read learn fast how to fake it. The teachers seemed to recognize this practice wasn’t involving poor readers – “you didn’t all say it at the same time; you’re not actually reading it” – but they claimed the poor readers needed to see their peers modeling techniques like pointing to each words as they read it before they’d be ready to figure out texts by themselves. Teachers did try to ask individual kids to read line by line; the kids who couldn’t read were noticeably more shy about it. The teachers were really patient with this group, helping them sound out words, but once the kids had mastered a word they’d move straight on to the next one. For the kids who could already read all the words pretty well, the teachers just let them do their thing, pointing at the words one by one and pronouncing them. The kids read slowly and rhythmically (‘teleologically’ is the technical term, apparently). At that pace, it wasn’t clear whether they really understood it.

Overcrowding was a problem even in our tutoring groups at first.

Overcrowding was a problem even in our tutoring groups at first.

I started up a conversation with Alpha after watching his kids read through a whole passage that way. Alpha had motioned me over, proudly wanting to demonstrate their abilities. I congratulated everyone, but then I started talking to him about how it’s progress but they’ve still got a long way to go, which means a lot of practice with the texts we’re writing now (and a lot of opportunities for the kids themselves to write, which almost never happens in Haitian schools. But one thing of a time).

Alpha agreed, but then he called me over to his desk to show me something else. “Take a look at these attendance records,” he said, handing me a report. Flipping through, I saw 71 kids signed up for first grade. “How many teachers do you have?” I asked. “One,” he said, watching my reaction.

Oh. So that’s the problem.

It doesn’t matter how well we train teachers or how good the books they write are. Okay, those things do matter, but we really can’t start to resolve them until we solve this fundamental issue of too many kids in one class.
I know what’s causing this. There are two free schools in the area: Bernadette’s and the government school, which is actually a long walk out of town because it serves another town, too. Everyone wants to sign up, because they don’t have to pay, and since they’re not paying, there are barely any funds to pay the current teachers, never mind recruiting new ones. And teachers are getting more expensive, because there’s a new mandate that they have to be certified. The mandate would be great, of course, if the necessary education to get one was more affordable.

We brought the group together again to talk about how to resolve the problem. I’d already served as a translator between Bernadette and the American Catholic church that funds her over what money is coming in, what it’s being used for, and how to get more. It won’t be possible to get more from current sources. So, just as a thought exercise, I started asking everyone about different options for making sure kids get more personalized education, beyond just raising money to hire more teachers.

The way things are working now, parents have to do a lot of work at home in order to make sure their kids are prepared. The teachers give out homework that includes learning passages they will have to read in class; the parents who are able to work hard to make sure their kids are pronouncing everything properly. But what about the parents who don’t know how to read, because they grew up as farmers in rural areas where no one went to school? Or the parents who have five or more kids enrolled, and don’t have the time or energy to devote that attention to them? What ends up happening is that the kids with a lot of support at home scrape by, and everyone else just kind of suffers and gets dismissed as “stupid.” Anyway, I get that learning shouldn’t stop when the school-day. I’m not anti-homework. Parents should be involved. But when teachers say things like, “Make sure your parents teach this to you tonight” I can’t help thinking, “Isn’t that your job, to get done in the five hours you have with them?” Kids should be able to pick up the basics while they’re in class, even if they have to practice them later. We’ve got to address this issue of too many students and too few teachers.

We talked about getting older or more advanced students to teach others. Teachers brought up that they’ve tried this technique before with kids within the same class. Sometimes it works, but kids often don’t have the necessary maturity or patience to work with their struggling peers. The older kids have their own curriculum and lessons to focus on, so you can’t count on them being able to head into the younger classrooms to help out.

There are schools that run apprenticeship programs, where teachers in training assist in order to get experience, but those take time and effort to set up. Lascahobas got its own teacher training institution in 2009; there’s also one over in Papaye, an hour or so away. They’ve had requests to receive apprentices before, but for extremely short periods of time – 2 weeks. At that point, it’s not worth the paperwork to get someone to come in, since they’ll be leaving so quickly.

We moved on to the idea of recruiting community members to come in. First of all, I had to establish what level of education they might have. Haitian schools just started instructing students in Creole literacy, so it’s likely that the adults in Lascahobas weren’t exposed to it when they were in school. From what the teachers told me, I came to the general conclusion that many in people know “how to read”, but that doesn’t always mean what you might assume it means. They know the letters and the sounds they make, and even though they didn’t learn Creole in school they don’t have too many issues with it because the letters are almost the same as French and it’s their language after all. But, they have a lot of trouble with writing, and they may or may not use their reading skills in their daily life. Books are scarce here, especially if you’re looking for something beyond religious texts. There is a newspaper, but I’m not sure how you’d go about getting it delivered from the capital, or what group of people would normally go to the trouble of getting it. Computers and phones involve tons of reading and writing, of course, but not everyone uses them regularly.

Anyway, even if you limit it to just making sure kids can write letters and pronounce them, which many people would be able to do even if they can’t read something at an advanced level, there’s still the problem of how you motivate your tutors. Sure, many people don’t have jobs and seem to spend all day standing around chatting, but how do you convince them that sitting with a kid is a better use of their time, especially if you’re asking them to do it without receiving any compensation in return? I talked to some members of our group who were active in churches, and asked them what it is about churches that enables them to mobilize people to get together and do something for free. They pointed out that things like planning a party or knocking on doors aren’t huge commitments. When people are doing a campaign or an event, there’s a fixed start and end date in mind, and it’s only a few days that they’re occupying anyone. We’re asking for people to keep coming for a month or more.

Finally, dividing the schoolday into two sections so that all the groups aren’t coming at the same time might work, but good luck selling everyone on it. People are very accustomed to the schedule they keep now – they’ve got 1 hour for each subject, so reducing the time the kids spend in school would somehow mean reducing the amount of time they spend on each subject. Theoretically, having less kids means you can spend less time on a subject because you’re teaching more efficiently with a smaller group, but I really can’t say by how much. Haitian schoolchildren are generally much more obedient than American children, for better or for worse. I’m not sure reducing numbers would actually reduce the amount of time teachers have to spend on discipline. It would increase learning, but good luck making anyone adapt to it and stick to it long enough to actually see that. Of course, you could divide the class into two sections that come at different times without reducing the time anyone’s spending in school – but when you’re asking the teachers to work for 10 hours a day rather than 5, you have to pay them more, and we’re back where we started.

But that’s what happens when you start trying to address the root of the problem – there are no easy answers; just steps you take to get closer to something that works. And each step ends up taking a lot of courage and konpreyansyon (a Creole word businesses use when apologizing to their clients for inconveniences) on everyone’s part. But the first step is listening to what people have to say.

After that discussion and a big lunch, we got back into writing. Some of the teachers had to go to take exams, and the ones who were left behind were a little reluctant to get started – they’d been hoping to end early after a few days of hard work. I rallied the troops by talking about how the more texts I have, the better I’ll be able to evaluate how useful this program is and get funding for it to continue. Having just consumed an energy drink. I was perfectly content to bounce around the room reading over people’s shoulders and joking about what I saw. With the smaller group, there was a more intimate atmosphere that lent itself better to sharing. By the end of the afternoon session, I was really happy we’d all stuck around to make something. And, of course, when you’ve got a budget and you’re able to pay people for their efforts, it’s a lot easier to convince them to keep going. Now that the writing part’s done, we’re just going to need a bigger budget for the teaching part…

Third Workshop Day: Putting Words on Screens

By the third day of the workshop, we were finally ready to start writing. I figured it might be easier to have a conversation about how to go about doing that if everyone was looking at the same list, so we pulled up Level 5: words that include l, t, p, and r, along with all the vowels. I didn’t give the teachers many directions: partly because I wasn’t sure how to advise them, partly because I wanted to see what they’d come up with on their own. I just said, “Write a story using these words.” But this was also after a couple of long discussions about the importance of using syllables that end in vowels and letters that kids already know in order to make the process of tackling text easier.

People seemed to grasp the concept quickly, and didn’t struggle too much with selecting words from the list to get their thoughts across. They produced simple texts that were more collections of phrases than a genuine story, frequently repeating sounds and using words chosen from the list. I was pretty happy with how well things were going. Like always, I went into this with no real expectations, but I came out pleasantly surprised all the same.

After lunch, we started assigning people to different levels of words. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of working at a higher level versus a lower level. The higher one has more words to choose from, but that freedom can also be daunting for some writers, plus the text they produce has to be longer because the kids are more accustomed to reading at that point. Within the lower levels, you have less room to maneuver but some teachers enjoy the problem of turning a short list of words into something that makes sense. It was a question of preference.

By this point, I had some idea about what certain people would like – I knew Michel-ange and Petiville would be more comfortable at the higher levels, whereas Raymond and Alpha’s techniques of drawing heavily from the lists shone best at the lower levels. Most everyone else fell somewhere in the middle – some chose something a little higher up than I thought would suit them, but I let them go ahead with it. Interestingly, sometimes my thoughts came down to a question of typing ability. No one in the room could actually type without looking at the keyboard, but some were definitely faster than others based on experience. That group I was more comfortable allowing to work at the higher levels because I knew they would be writing words out more often than clicking on the words from the lists.

But, as the workshop progressed, even the people who had never used the computers before used lot of progress. We didn’t exactly have a moment before we began where I sat them down and explained, “This is how you do a capital letter. This is how you do an accent. This is how you do a period.” But they asked those questions throughout the workshop when they needed them answered, and then continued to use what they learned in the next story they wrote. I was constantly surprised, scrolling through the finished products, how much some of the writers had managed to put on the page.

Nick explaining the solution to the latest technical problem.

Nick explaining the solution to the latest technical problem.

Unfortunately, we also ended up suffering a lot of technical issues during this session. Nick was working on the electrical system, so I wasn’t able to charge as many computers as I’d expected to be able to and batteries were running low. Connecting to the server was also unexpectedly difficult. Nick went on a walk at one point, right before some of the computers started refusing to connect. I had to call him on the road and pull up a terminal in order to get things established again. It was frustrating, but it didn’t seem to mess anyone up too much as long as their computer wasn’t the one having issues. Then, later that night, I checked the server for the texts the teachers had written and realized barely anything had been saved, because I didn’t realize I should be telling teachers to press the button after every few sentences or so. All that work, down the drain.

In the end, working with technology is frustrating, especially in our situation where we’re using computers that are over half a decade old and prone to battery, wireless, and a host of other problems. It’s easy to get fed up with our green and white machines at times. The teachers specifically asked me why I didn’t buy regular ol’ laptops for the project, and although I could reel off a list of advantages and disadvantages for them, in the back of my mind I was a little tempted to seek out something that would be a little faster and larger. But, how would you power it? Bigger and better often means more electricity. And aren’t the durable ones that will actually last in a long time in this environment much more expensive than the dinky cheap ones that will break within a month?

I don’t have answers to all those questions (and many more), and I know we probably never will. This is an iterative process, where we get slightly better each time (as long as we have the funding, of course). But there’s a part of me that’s just a little frustrated to be spending our time talking about which computers to buy instead of which books to write on them. For me, the latter is a much more interesting question. Luckily, I’m working with people who care a lot about the former, so they’re willing to tell me which parts to buy at Home Depot or what commands to type in the terminal to get everything up and running. If this thing wasn’t a group effort, I of course would have given up long before now.

Second Workshop Day: ‘Uit’ or ‘Wit’?

The second day of the workshop, we had to get into the nitty-gritty of how to build a phonics system pretty early on. I got out the XO laptops and hooked everyone up to the server, where we’d stored a copy of our wordlist for them to look at. After some difficulties connecting (for some, it was their first time using a computer, and of course the XO ones take some getting used to) everyone was looking.

I started by explaining the principles behind its generation. We wanted words with only two syllables, because shorter is better for beginning readers. Oh, and each syllable should end on a vowel, because that’s how they do it in some Spanish-speaking countries and they’re easier to sound out than the ones that end on a consonant. Plus, we should make sure the words contain only letters the kids have already learned in class. I didn’t know the order they used in Haiti, so we generated our order for presenting the different consonants based on their frequency within our two-syllable, open-syllable wordlist. Haitian Creole has ten vowels (plus y and w) and I wasn’t quite sure how soon to introduce all of them. So we started out with those two issues.

But first, we had something bigger to resolve. The teaches were interested in doing all ten vowels right from the start, but the government program favors consonants and only starts with four vowels. Bernadette, the school’s accountant and the one who recruits foreigners like me to help out, sat in on many of the discussions and was worried when she heard teachers talking about how they wanted to diverge from the government-mandated program. If the teachers chose to do things differently, wouldn’t their kids end up behind everyone else and get lower scores?

We talked about the idea that teachers know their kids better than the government and should adjust and adapt based on what works best for them, and some of the best schools come up with their own programs and follow them confidently – even the government-funded schools don’t stick completely to the plan. Of course, that means the school director has to have a little bit of faith in their capabilities and give them the space to do their job. It’s an issue that we’re constantly considering back at home, and I told everyone there’s no easy answer. Bernadette remembered that “the government doesn’t give us any money anyway – what can they do if we decide not to follow them?’ and we kept moving forward.

Having decided to introduce “all twelve vowels” from the start, we consulted one of the textbooks for consonant-order. On this point, no one seemed to mind following the government program, because apparently one consonant is more or less as good as another. Of course the book listed ten vowels and two demi-vowels at the front, which generated our first debate about which one was “correct.” So far, these debates have been really entertaining and educational for me – they’ve really impressed me so far with their knowledge. When I say “consonant” they know what I’m talking about, and when I make a mistake and give “c” as an example of one they’re quick to remind me that “C isn’t actually a consonant in Creole. Just like ‘q’ or ‘x'; it only exists in loan words.” But now we were getting into areas where there wasn’t unanimous agreement. Over the question of ‘w’, for example, we never quite resolved whether you spell words with ‘w’. “Eight” is written “uit,” but then “swit” sounds almost the same. It might just be a case of something being an exception to the rule, but if anyone knows what the rule might be, I’d love to hear it.

During lunchbreak, Nick rewrote the script to fit in our six new vowels. I’d been telling the teachers throughout the workshop that if they want to change anything it’s entirely possible, because our programmer’s right there in the next room. I knew that was setting pretty high expectations, but luckily, Nick lived up to them (for the most part).

We took a look at the words to make sure everyone was satisfied with how things looked. Then, I had everyone pull up the software itself, to give us feedback on some changes we could make. Again, I emphasized how easy it should be to change something they didn’t like: “If you’d rather this button be green than blue, Nick can just go into the code and find where it says ‘blue’ and change it. Now, something a little more complicated will be a little harder for him, but they can still do it.” It was a lot of fun to make those kinds of promises and empower the participants – but I knew even as the words were leaving my mouth that everything depended on what Nick was actually able to pull off.

This first time around, the teachers mostly used the software to search up different words, seeing the two-syllable, open-vowel, consonant-restricted system we’d been discussing this whole time in action. They used the search feature to look up whether a word met those qualifications. People were surprised to find things like “voudou” inside – I’m guessing they searched for the word to figure out exactly how much the dictionary we used as the basis of the software filters words for child-appropriateness.

One thing we noticed during this demo was that the software was extremely slow. The XO laptops don’t have much processing power, since they’re so old, and the computer was scanning through a lot of words in order to find the ones that met our criteria. Nick took a look at what was going on and concluded that it was just a matter of making processes like searching more streamlined. Some of the teachers had enough technical competence to suggest making the program into a local app, stored on the computer, instead of something hosted on the server. That way, no one would have to connect to a separate device in order to write a story.

We wrapped up with those worries about how to make improvements to the software in the back of my mind. At the same time, I was looking forward to the next day of the workshop, when we’d actually be able to get down to writing.