As sort of an “end of the beginning” project I was hoping to get the kids to write, illustrate, and maybe even begin animating a story. The kids did put in some good work and you’ll see it soon, but there’s some obstacles to overcome before they produce the next great Haitian novel.
First we tried to make a round-robin story: the kids sit in a circle and send a story round, taking turns adding pieces to it. The activity engaged imaginations when we tried it out at Junior’s school – in fact, Junior complained that the kids were being too wild with their plot twists. But the Project Rive bunch couldn’t even manage fiction. The two stories that emerged, after a lot of prompting, were about exactly what happened on the ten minute walk to the classroom and the kids’ answers to a yes or no question about a canape tree.
Clearly, something’s missing somewhere. It’s interesting, because people assume that all kids are natural artists, scientists, and explorers, born to learn and brimming with imagination and curiosity. Sure, that’s true – within the early stages of life, people are machines for learning about and adapting to their environment, and you certainly need creativity and probingness to accomplish that. But this also means that kids are influenced very easily by their environment.
By environment, I mean two things: both the nurture they’ve received and what they’ve been exposed to growing up in Haiti, and their experiences in the computer course itself.
First of all, it’s not as if kids in Haiti don’t get the chance to play and learn. They spend almost the whole day outside, kicking around soccer balls, sending kites up into the air, and poking around in the dirt or plants. Access to the computers is changing the way they’re going about activities, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing them before they got their fingers on the touchpad. Whether it’s a music-composition program or a plastic bucket and a stick to get a beat out of it, and I’ve also seen some good drawings on both walls and computer screens. It’s not like they’re without stories, jokes, and poetry either – from the rap songs blasting out on the street corner to Bouki and Ti Malis of folklore fame they’re exposed to wordplay and story arcs.
Then again, the kids at Ayiti Moun Yo had very abnormal childhoods. “Poor” means different things in Haiti and in America, but these kids were poor by Haitian standards. Before the orphanage took them in, they were homeless, had never had the chance to go to school, and were probably in some pretty desperate situations.
Interestingly, I know all this about their backgrounds because after the round-robin activity didn’t go as planned the kids voted to work on their life stories instead. Every single one of them cranked out at least a little bit about their families, past lives, and recent changes, speaking remarkably honestly and openly about hardships they had endured. These kids have been through a lot and somehow still have fantastic attitudes about everything. They’ll even spill out the facts to a foreign stranger. That quality alone is at least as impressive as the ability to spit out a random story, and it’s not as if getting the facts straight doesn’t often require just as much creativity as making them up.
Still, I’d like to see these kids creating something entirely new someday – or at least give them the capacity and freedom to do it. So now we turn to the second part of “environment.” Virginia Woolf writes that every woman author needs “a room of one’s own” in order to be able to breathe a novel or poem into being.
It’s the same case with the kids – they need the time and space set aside for their muses to operate. There’s parts to that which are pretty simple, like giving the same group of kids access the computers at the same time, so that they know exactly when to put their thinking caps on. But then there’s parts that are much more complex, like setting up the right atmosphere, one where the kids come prepared to work while knowing that play and exploration will be celebrated. The teachers have to encourage the kids, and the kids have to support and accept each other, and also believe in themselves.
Yeah, it all sounds a little kumbayah – ish. But we’re talking about enabling people to do one of the most difficult and amazing things anyone can ever do: put something into the world that wasn’t there before. They need in the best position possible if they’re going to pull that off.