(by C.T. Kormann, from newsletter)

The classroom is lit only by the mid-day sun, which angles in through the glassless windows of wrought-iron bars. Outside is a grove of plantain trees. The heat is heavy, the air dusty. Rubén, a skinny 11-year-old, is clicking and dragging his miniature mouse across the arm of his battered wood desk-chair. His toes just barely touch the floor and his saucer-shaped eyes are locked on the glowing screen of his XO laptop, where he has, on a whim, created the solar system.

It was my third day in Nicaragua teaching 21 students, (six girls, fifteen boys, ages eight to 12), how to use Etoys—a program that, for starters, lets kids create animated storybooks. This was the first time I’d been involved in a Waveplace pilot, and I started the experience with some privately held skepticism. The elementary school, Cayetano Estrella Diaz, located in the color-splashed village of Buenos Aires, has no electricity, holes in its corrugated tin roof, and walls made of cardboard covered Styrofoam. Books are few and almost only for teachers’ use. And until we—Mary Scotti, Bill Stelzer and I—had arrived, almost all these kids had never used a computer before in their lives. Shouldn’t books and other fundamentals for students be the priority? How can these computers be integrated into the school’s day-to-day classes once we (the Americans who had brought them down) leave? Will computers really improve these kids’ educations—when it seemed to me that there were other, more pressing needs?

Within three days, I realized how myopic I’d been as I watched the kids respond to their XOs and begin to learn Etoys. Watching little Rubén draw his solar system after discovering the circle tool in Etoys was one of countless instances that crystallized my conviction in the project’s worth. The kids were sparked to use their imaginations and explore in the XOs’ whole new realm of possibilities. Consequently, they were eager (a few even greedy), to learn whatever I had to teach in the next lesson so that they could explore and create even more.

The real daily thrill was seeing the shy kids, or the less outwardly enthusiastic, accidentally reveal a smile, or a proud blush, as they showed off their work. The girls, far outnumbered, were all at first timid, and so, a bit slower to catch some concepts. But within days, they cracked their own shells. Julissa, for example, moved from the back of class to the front, by her own volition, just to be closer to the lesson action. Deysi started creating intricate swing set drawings for her story—worthy of a good graphic designer’s praise. Katerin, by the end of the two weeks, could not help but shout out answers to my questions. The laptops work as an equalizer.

I saw the kids take ownership over what they were learning. They were empowered. They became more and more comfortable navigating, exploring and creating on a machine that two weeks prior had been, to them, as alien as chicharrones con pelo (pork rinds with hair—a Nicaraguan snack) might be in the States. Best of all, I saw them jump out of their seats to help one another—to show someone else how to do what they had already figured out. There were momentary flashes when I felt that we the teachers could fade into the walls and the kids would fly along without us—one would figure something out, teach the others, who would figure something else out and so on.

My other concerns were squashed as I watched the kids use the XOs during their free time after class. One, Luis, discovered some e-books already scanned into the XO memory and read away the hour. The XO can hold up to 200 e-books! A library contained in one little green whirling box! I found Adán and Benito, on different days, quietly tapping away little poems in the writing program. (Adán’s began: “Mi madre es una rosa,” or “My mother is a rose.”) Almost all the kids loved creating music and recording sound in a program called TamTamMini. Others were fascinated by the archive of pictures from places around the globe, or by Wikipedia (the sort of permanent, not online version). And of course, the camera was endlessly entertaining. I happily watched as some students started taking their laptops outside for more artful shots of a mango tree or the turquoise school, experimenting with the light and frame.

Regarding complete integration of the laptops once the Nicaragua pilot ends, I found the local teachers—Roxanna, David and Geovany—to be as excited about learning the XOs and Etoys as the kids. I’m certain that they would continue to teach with them in groundbreaking ways. My hope now is that the school can obtain a security box in order to keep the laptops and that more laptops can be sent to this town—for greater or complete saturation. They really could make a world—hey, even a solar system—of difference.

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