Blog Post

Adapting plans and project to local circumstances

Education involves interpersonal relationships, and in every such situation problems and solutions are unique to particular circumstances. We are re-learning that no single pedagogical model can fit all kinds of schools, or of teachers, or of kids. Every group is unique.

This entry reports on our third visit during school time to the Tilil and Naxoch (pronounced nashosh) communities, and our first visit to Paytajil, the community in which CONAFE will implement the technology with our supervision. It was difficult to arrange for these visits because fhe first two communities take vacations during the whole week of November 2-6 for the "All Saints" festivities; and before that the instructors went to the city for a development course, and then they had exams.

At the Tilil school, it was very cold (about 8 degrees C) and a tiny and persistent mist made it feel like 4C. Only six grade 3-4 kids came to school, and four from grades 5-6 out of 15 total. Children have to walk 15 to 20 minutes among mountain valleys to get to their school and parents are afraid they might catch influenza, so they keep them at home. The ones that came were not dressed up enough for this kind of weather --there were even a couple of girls with no shoes. At midday, they invited us to a cup of coffee and then turned on central heating on the classroom - a brasero with flaming coal.

After we fixed up a couple of laptops that had presented a technical glitch and installed a journal backup system, instructors Marcela and Maria started their class with the machines. They asked the kids to write a letter using the Write activity of Sugar. The title and format of the letter was written down on the blackboard - from: Child's name to: mom date: and so on a sort of memo... The younger pupils still do not read Spanish well enough so they merely hunted down for each letter one by one on their keyboard. A little girl kept keys presssssssssssed =) Then she hit and it was all gone... We forget how difficult it is to learn to type for people that have never seen a keyboard before. The instructors went around helping the kids, and then put the children in small groups so that the older ones could help the youngest. Then one of the older kids springed up all enthusiastic from his seat and came to me:


-Can I send the letter to him? (he had taken the initiative of writing a letter to his friend across the room and noticed the send to function on his Journal entry)


-You mean to his computer?




So I showed him how to send documents over the mesh network, a very simple operation on Sugar, something that they had not done before. His friend was delighted. Soon other children noticed and also sent their letters around and the instructors learned how to do it... 

Talking with some of the kids later, we learned that they have mainly used so far the Write and Calculate activities, and that they enjoy working with the computers. Instructors confirm this. We notice that they have better control of the classroom. Maria tells us about a learning activity that she invented using the StoryBuilding activity of Sugar. In this activity children can choose a background image and then select and move characters around as they write a story using the characters. They had learned about some animals in class so the kids had to pick the jungle background and then choose and identify animals, and mention in their story which can be eaten and how. Maria tells us that they have to advance very slowly with reading and writing as small kids are still learning Spanish.

One of the surprises that we have had while working with CONAFE is that, at least in the communities that we have, parents have a very strong interest in school happenings. The parents committee is very often around when we visit and they ask how things are going on. The committee also influences some school policies; in particular, they can declare that on some day or days kids will not have classes because of some festivity taking place in the community or any other reason. At Tilil on Wednesday, the parents cancelled classes for the following day because it was to be too cold for the kids. We can imagine that in these conditions, classes will be very infrequent as the winter season progresses. 

Taking that vacation day as an opportunity, the following day we invited Marcela and Maria to Naxoch, so that they could watch instructor Carlos giving classes with the computers and then could later share experiences with him. 

Carlos was teaching fractions when we arrived; then he asked the students to get a blank page of screen and write down what they had just learned. He prompted them with some questions. We noticed that kids still type slowly but faster than the last time we were here, and that they already know how to format their document nicely. 

The most interesting part of the day came when we asked the instructors to share experiences. Carlos has been using several of the Sugar activities in creative ways. He has asked students to go out and take photos of animals and plants, insert the photos in documents and share documents around; use the Record activity to record stories aloud and share them with their classmates; use the Speak activity to write down any number, first attempt to read the number aloud, and then ask the funny face at the screen to read it to see if they got it OK; and of course use the Calculate and Write activities and several others. We were surprised about Carlos creativity and advances. He still has a very commanding way of teaching and still helps kids one by one he has only 10 students- instead of asking the students to help each other. 

The following day we were in for another surprise. The Paytajil community is as far from San Cristobal as Naxoch; however, it is besides the road between the city and the Palenque archeological ruins, a highly traveled road with many towns in between. The 13 primary students (two boys and eleven girls) no longer dress using native clothing; they use school uniforms. The girls are much more active, unlike say Naxoch girls who are more timid. We were treated to an official ceremony (national hymn, marching with the Mexican flag and so on), including words of thanks from a CONAFE official and the leader of the parents committee. This later oration was most moving; he said the parents were very grateful of CONAFE and Tecnolgico because we were bringing laptops to the children, so that they can have a better education than the one the parents had. He mentioned that he had gone to the States as an undocumented worker and tears fell from his eyes when he remembered some hard experiences and said he hoped the children with better education will not have to do the same and suffer the same. Later on I told him that he should also be grateful of McArthur foundation and HASTAC he did not know and was surprised.

For this community we decided not to train the instructors ourselves, but rather have Raymundo, CONAFEs academic director assistant, to do the training while we just observed and minimally intervened. A second decision was to train the instructors alone and not simultaneously with the kids, to give the instructors a head start and more authority as experts of the computer experience That only kind of worked, as these very active children soon came in to the room and were opening the laptops, finding out how to turn them on and asking questions It is likely that they had seen computers before, unlike the other more rural children of Naxoch and Tilil. Training was limited to a few hours only, but Raymundo would be coming back do further prepare the instructors Hector and Julio.

Our time at Paytajil was very limited as the parents invited us to have lunch with them around a long table. I was fortunate to sit besides the parents leader. He had seen computers with internet at the U.S. and asked whether and when the children will have internet so that they can learn about other countries and places of the world and whether we would install a printer to see what the children were doing. Our answer was sure, later on.

This community will have less time to use the computer as the other two; for the research it will be interesting to compare results of rural children with Paytajil more city-like kids.

At our initial two days training in August, we had assumed that our young instructors would catch on early about the technology and constructionist, project-based and problem-oriented participative learning; and that they would use our initial lesson plans and then invent new ones. This was clearly very ambitious and will eventually happen but much more slowly, and in a different way in each community. Technology use has been more intensive and creative at Naxoch than at Tilil, even considering that Naxoch instructor Carlos could not attend our training. At Tilil the kids are teaching their instructors about the computer rather than the other way around. Both communities need to improve regarding the four steps in which we have simplified Constructionism have kids build something, share it, improve it with feedback and reflect on learning. Once they do that consistently we can move on to problem-based and project orientation.

On another note, researcher Yolanda Heredia presented the TecnoTzotzil project at the Virtual Educa conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is an important conference supported by OEA, the Organization of American States. The presentation raised much interest among attendants, as 1 to 1 laptop projects have not yet been implemented in Argentina.


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