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?

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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.

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