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.

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