(written by Linda Smutz, from newsletter)

“I’m the worst kid in this class.”

These were the first words out of A’Feyah’s mouth, after nodding shyly to grant me permission to watch her work on her XO. As a stranger from the mainland with zero credibility, there was no point in trying to persuade her otherwise, so I simply asked to hear about her story. That’s how I found out about CeCe the dog, who was happy enough living under a table outside A’Feyah’s trailer until another dog joined the family one day. The draft was a little rough, but it had everything: characters, setting, plot, problem, tension, and resolution. The story also had something pencil and paper could not have provided: animated illustrations. Wavy lines of wind blew delicious kitchen smells toward CeCe; a bird flew and the sun rose in the sky. Together, A’Feyah and I shared a wonderful writer’s conference — I offered questions her readers might have, and she expanded her thoughts and developed the plot a little more.

Two days later, I returned to fourth grade just in time to see Bill Stelzer’s lesson on copying and pasting illustrations onto different pages to allow for different animations. He lost me about three minutes into the process, but the students were listening carefully. Since the day’s task was to continue editing text rather than illustrations, I wondered if anyone would remember the several steps needed to manipulate the drawings. While the other kids moved closer to Bill for another demonstration (this one involving superheroes), A’Feyah stayed with her XO, busily making her sun shine and her bird fly on the same page, with a few missteps but no help from anyone. This self-proclaimed “worst kid in the class” was programming her computer to tell a story from her own life, with animated illustrations, no less. And it was a good story. She gave me a broad, confident smile when I asked if she would share her story with students in my school. I don’t believe A’Feyah thinks she’s the worst kid in the class anymore.

We talked about swimming and dogs and jellyfish. A’Feyah is full of stories waiting to be told. Getting them out of her head and into the world would appear to be a hopeless proposition, were it not for the skills and confidence growing in this young girl, thanks to a group of caring adults and the technology that allows her to write, illustrate and publish her work. It’s no small task and enormously time-consuming to mentor young writers and artists, but I can’t imagine a more fulfilling endeavor with as much potential to preserve the integrity of Caribbean communities and culture.

(from newsletter)

On Thursday March 27, an exciting chapter in Caribbean education history came to an end as we finished our Guy Benjamin Pilot here on St. John. As the kids did their final presentations of the digital storybooks they created, I could not help but be amazed by their journey of the past three months.

At our very first Etoys class, I asked the kids how many computer programmers they knew. Between them they could name only three. I then told them they were all about to become computer programmers, and then we strapped them to their rocket sleds and lit the fuse. One thing that is fascinating to watch is how quickly kids learn XO basics, especially when it comes to games, music, and chat. I really only had to teach a kid or two and then sit back as the newfound knowledge spread like wildfire.

Learning Etoys was much more of a challenge, especially for kids in the Virgin Islands, who are disadvantaged by a struggling education system, while simultaneously bombarded by the latest technological distractions from the rest of the world. To combat this, we found that mentoring was absolutely essential. If kids get stuck or lost on their own, it is all too easy for them to abandon their efforts in frustration and never go back.

Also during the course of the pilot we found innovative new ways to teach digital media and programming here in the Caribbean. One of the more entertaining ways was handing the kids paper compasses, then turning the playground into a huge Etoys screen with the kids themselves as computer objects. From there they would march out their geometric and true/false programming, to cement key concepts into their mind and bodies.

Through it all, it was inspiring to watch the kids rise to the challenges, using Etoys to bring life to their creative visions. One cannot help but feel that there is a powerful new wave building, and it is fascinating to think that the kids at tiny Guy Benjamin School are among the very first in the world to jump on – and ride it into the future.

Today I read some very nice comments from a few of the people who donated their XO laptops to children in our Haiti pilot. Last week I posted photos of the children that got their laptops as well as a new video.

The first donor comment was from Emily Davidow, who also blogged:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful program! Seeing the pictures and movie made me so happy. Looking forward to following the progress in Haiti and all your programs through the newsletter.

The next was from author David Weinberger, who blogged as well.

I can’t say much makes me happier than this photo of the One Laptop Per Child laptop I donated in the hands of its owner. (I had done the “buy two, get one” program, and then donated the laptop they’d sent me. That’s the one you see here.) Thank you, Waveplace, for doing this, and for letting me see what you do.

The last was from Harlan Limpert:

I’m so appreciative of this link to the photo of the young girl that received out XO laptop. It’s given me an additional opportunity to “plug” the good work of Waveplace.

If you’d like to donate a laptop for our upcoming St Vincent pilot, please contact us. If you’d like to donate money to help us finish our documentary and courseware, please click here.

LaReesa teaches! I had worked with LaReesa earlier in the week on Holder animation, the same lesson as with Laura. I had originally thought we would only get through half of it on Tues – i.e. we would work on frames on Tues and scripting on Thurs. However because Laura had managed to teach the entire process on Tues, and because LaReesa had had problems when she was trying out the lesson on her own, I switched what she was teaching just before class to a tutorial/refresher of a few of the more helpful tools in Etoys.

In it she went through with the kids – (a) How to Hide the holder – which we hadn’t quite gotten to. (b) How to use the “All Scripts” tool. (c) How to use the “Players” tool.

Really getting a handle on each of these, (especially the second two) I felt would go a long way in helping the kids get through some of the problems they were having. Because the XO is relatively underpowered, having all the scripts on at once in their books can really bog the machine down. Trying to find and turn all the scripts off can be nightmarish when the cursor is moving slowly or freezing up. Also the Players command is absolutely essential. Because of some quirk in the XO version of Etoys, the icons for the viewers disappear when you go to the next page. If an object makes its way off the screen or book page, it is gone forever without this tool.

LaReesa does a great job of teaching, going through these concepts, and after that we move on to the animation. From there the problems we have today are pretty much identical as the ones we had on Tues, with a few new twists, related and unrelated. One is that A’Feyah’s pages are all different sizes, which once I explain why is problematic, she quickly fixes.

Also as the kids try and add more animations to their pages, their problems multiply also, but they are variations on the original themes.

JahQuan’s done a nice animation that the other boys are all impressed by. Some of the other boys also want help on their own animations.

Also had the new ogg music files for today, these opening in a much stable fashion in the XO’s media browser. Only problem was that some had a tough time with the concept of them as a motivating tool, and had no ability whatsoever to hold out till 4:45when class was over and I passed around the USB drive. But for the rest of the kids it was well worth it. (On a related note, I can’t help but think that A’Feyah’s success with Etoys is directly related to her love of chocolate.)

It for now.

Laura teaches! Meet with her at Skinny’s two hours before class and teach her how to use Holder animation. She practices it till she’s comfortable with it. It is interesting in that almost always something invariably goes wrong the first time you try it, as there are host of things that can stop your animation dead in its tracks. (as we shall see…)

Laura starts the class with a beautiful mermaid drawn on the Whiteboard. This immediately has the attention of the girls in the front row. Then she goes about the process of duplicating the mermaid, getting a holder, and dragging the duplicate in it and creating yet another duplicate for the holder. At one point she starts running out of space, so A’Feyah suggests shrinking down the holder, which didn’t affect the size of the final animation, which is determined by the size of the original sketch. This was kinda cool to see, as it meant the kids were trying to think out what Laura was doing as she demonstrated the process.

In fact a number of kids of were thinking their way through the steps, figuring out on their own why Laura was doing what she was doing in between her explanations. Even though the process of setting up the holder, the duplicated frames and the animation script and the repainting was pretty involved, the kids stuck with it. When Laura finally started the animation, there was an audible gasp as the beautiful mermaid flipped her tail back and forth. Suddenly the kids were all excited and full of – can you make her wave her arms? – and other questions. To which Laura replied that they’d all be able to do whatever they wanted to do on their own computers. So lets go!

They all started on their own animations, and were attempting a bunch of really ambitious things, but it was like navigating down the Mississippi, with sandbars around every corner. Trick number one was just trying to figure out which was the original painting and which were the duplicates, and then trying to get them in the right spot in the script. I would suggest that straight from the start, the original is the “original,” and then the duplicates that are made are named “original F1″ original F2” and so on. Many of the kids would get the original in their holder, and the duplicate outside, which works fine Etoys wise, but it would get confusing quick when they were trying to figure which was which in their script, leading to a complicated debugging process.

Another issue was just the creation of the script, as the different parts came from so many different scripting categories and viewers. It wasn’t enough just to see the completed script on the board, because it was so tricky to remember where all the tiles came from. Also since multiple tiles would become one in the final script, and the tiles themselves would actually change as the parts got replaced, it was tricky for the kids to hold it all in their heads. I had actually created a hand made cheat sheet for Laura to use when teaching, showing a print out of the animation script, with underlines and arrows listing the original location of each tile. (i.e. Original Sketch – Miscellaneous>Sketch hide)

This of course would be great for the kids to have a copy of too. So they can refer to it when they are trying to both remember and then locate the command they need.

This I think would go a long way towards fixing what we saw over and over again, which were scripts that were almost, but not quite right. Where everything looked fine, but it just wouldn’t work, until you debugged the script and saw that someone had actually instead placed the original sketch in the holder and the duplicate outside of it, and so the script would actually be telling the sketch actually “inside” the holder to look like the holder. (Or some variation on that.)

Another show stopper and definitely one to tell the Etoys programmers about, is the fact that it is very easy for the second sketch to not be in exactly the right place in the holder. The first sketch of course has a rectangle around it, but the second one has nothing to let you know it’s in place, and it’s very easy for it to be inside the holder, but just a hair off. This shuts down everything dead and is a huge mystery until you move that second sketch just a hair – and it pops into place and everything starts working. Saw this happen over and over again. Would suggest that the programmers add rectangles to second sketch within the holder also, so the kids know when it is locked into place also. (Note – it could be a gray rectangle instead of black to differentiate – also in the case of more than two frames, each of them should still have some kind of indication)

Ayele also hit upon what could have been a great timesaver, cept it didn’t work. He had rotated his second sketch inside the holder, to make his race car jump up, but when he ran the animation nothing happened. Turns out Eetoys only pays attention to the original pixels in the sketch, and not its size or rotation. Thus there are no shortcuts, if you want something rotated, you have to rotate it by repainting it rotated.

Couple other interesting things about this class. One was that I turned Tracy into a student teacher with some of the kids who were having trouble. Kinda worked, though admittedly an uphill battle. Also in my nonstop battle to keep these kids motivated, I added to the chocolate repertoire mp3s of Soulja Boy as interpreted by Alvin and the Chipmunks. (Which I had created for them using audio captures from the YouTube videos.) As motivation it worked beautifully, but curiously the only program on the XO that can play an mp3 is Etoys, and its implementation is fraught with danger. Not only do you have to answer all the pop ups correctly, if you make a mistake, it crashes Etoys and can even toast the original mp3 file. Resolve to come back on Thurs with ogg versions to see if they works any better.

Also no end of fun, on the way back to CruzBay, me and Laura followed behind the Safari taxi carrying the kids. As we wound through the awe inspiring scenery of the Virgin Islands National Park, the kids kept yelling back to us that they didn’t get enough chocolate, while they chatted back and forth with each other with the built in mesh networking of their XOs.

Welcome to the future my friends.

It for now.

Just received some photos from the start of our Haitian pilot, along with some new photos from our St John pilot, which is in its sixth week.

* Haiti photos

* St John photos

(by Dr. Alan Kay of Viewpoints Research Institute, from newsletter)

Children are set up by nature to learn the world around them by watching adult activity and playing imitation games. Dewey pointed out that this is difficult in today’s developed cultures because many important adult activities are opaque or not found in every home.

Montessori thought that children’s urge to learn the world by immersion and play could be powerfully used for twentieth-century learning if the children were placed into twentieth-century environments and given toys that embodied twentieth-century ideas. One of her special insights was that a main task of early education was to reshape the ordinary common sense that every child picks up into the “uncommon sense” that is needed as the foundation for many modern ideas, especially those in science.

There are books about how to learn these ideas in the thousands of free libraries in the United States. But if you haven’t learned the discernment to use libraries and don’t have a hint of what you are missing, you have to be a pretty special type to find a way into these ideas by yourself. The Internet is now starting to bring the libraries of powerful ideas into the home, but most people will still need the discernment and the hints to provide the motivation for exploring ideas that require some effort to learn.

The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned than any book. This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can.

We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. We have written examples of this new literature which are published on the Internet for children and adults to “read” and play with. Readers can also become writers, because “authoring is always on”.