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.
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.