(from Tuesday)

It’s 12:15- time for our mentor meeting- and there are only six out of ten mentors here.

I pace back and forth. Today is the most important day of our visit so far. In trying to make peace with the principal at our school in Petite Riviere des Nippes, we had invited him to come and watch class today, then sit with us for a few minutes as we go through our mentor breakdown meeting. We would welcome his questions and comments, and simultaneously try to show him that he can trust us to make this program run smoothly.

The mentors had been having trouble getting the principal to trust them. He used to come to class and take attendance- of the mentors! When they would ask for things from him, he would say no. Yet in the past few days I have realized why he acts the way he does. The computers are being used in his school with his students, yet his teachers are not being included. Not only are his teachers missing out on a potential money-making opportunity, but he is being pushed out of his own classroom. Not to mention that the new teachers brought to him- our mentors- are young and inexperienced. He is very devoted to the program and he just wants to make sure that it works right.

That’s why, despite everyone’s cynicism, we ultimately decided to invite the principal to class today to watch how our mentors CAN, in fact, handle the program. It was our way of proving to him that he can trust us.

And here we are, time to start, and just over half of us are here.

I was angry. Luckily, Benaja doesn’t know many swearwords so I don’t think he picked up on just how angry I was, but needless to say, I was fuming. We had told everyone to come to class on time today- that it was extremely important to the continuation of our program that they be there, on time, and with their game faces on. On top of that, this morning we had Michena call everyone early and remind them to come on time. Yet not even Michena was here in class.

When eight mentors made it through the door, I decided to just start our pre-class meeting. No reason to go through too much information with not everyone here, so we covered a few quick basics- things we had talked about yesterday that we would like to see today:

1) Let the kids enjoy themselves. Encourage them. It’s okay if their paintings aren’t very good or if they don’t understand something. They will. The lessons build on each other. If a student doesn’t understand something, have another student help them.

2) Have one person be in charge of class each day (it can be a different person on different days). When that person is talking, make sure all other mentors are LISTENING to them and paying attention!

3) Don’t stop. Be efficient with your time. Don’t spend 30 minutes reviewing something. Maybe 15 minutes max, then jump into the lesson. We don’t have all day.

Then, magic happened.

The principal came on by at about 1pm. By that time, we were getting into our lesson. Antoine was teaching one class, and Thelemaque, one of the new mentors, was teaching the other. Both of them succeeded with flying colors, especially Thelemaque. We were so grateful that Michena handed him the reins and let him teach because he was beautiful at it. He had a strong voice with the kids but was still extremely kind. The other mentors walked around and helped students as he spoke.

When the principal came, he was thoroughly impressed. Bill and I pulled him aside. Our plan that day was to hang onto him, to not let him take too much control of the class (as he often does) but to guide him along with us and to show him how great of a class we really have going. We showed him what we were learning that day, pointed out our teaching technique and what the mentors were doing. We asked him what he was thinking about the program. All he could say were good things. He told us that the students are coming to his office everyday asking if he can charge their computers before class (something we asked them to do) and a couple of mentors (including Thelemaque, our all star of the day) that come at 11am to make sure the computers will be charged fully by the time class starts. He was very pleased.

I mentioned the fact that the students seem to be doing well, taking the computers home. His eyes lit up. “Oh yes!” he said. “The students are taking personal responsibility for these computers. They are really caring for them since they get to take them home.” He cited a time when he saw a student very carefully put his computer in his backpack, and then very carefully carry his backpack on his back, checking regularly to make sure the computer was all right. He also mentioned a little girl who tells him that she is her family’s teacher. She regularly gives classes to her father, her mother, and her siblings when she brings the computer home.

I smiled as I thought about our first day here, when I was trying to convince the principal to let the kids at least try taking the computers home, because he would be surprised how much personal responsibility they will take for them. He had reluctantly agreed at this point. Now he seemed a total convert.

It looks like I still know how to work my charm.

We asked the principal to stay about fifteen minutes after class with us while we showed him what our mentor breakdown meetings were like. We spent a few minutes writing in our journals and then we talked. All the mentors were very happy with class that day. Bill and I praised them for listening to our quick advice about how to best guide the class. We all agreed together that these small changes had made a really big difference in the learning experience and the enjoyment of the students. Antoine pointed out the fact that some students didn’t want other students helping them- they felt like it was cheating. We explained that our computer classes are different from things they might be doing at their school, because we are all learning together. We need to encourage students and each other to work together. We are all learning. He nodded. It’s a new way of thinking, but once the kids get it, it’ll work.

The principal made a couple of notes to the mentors. At first I was nervous; he seemed to be trying to tell them what to do. Make sure the kids turn the computers off correctly, he said, for example. Then he said that he is very excited for this program; that he would love to see it expand. I added that we have a strong group of mentors who can really carry this program and he smiled in agreement. He says he hopes one day there will be enough computers for all the students in the grade to use.

We mentioned the computers in his office and asked if he might be interested in helping us develop a lending library where students could check out the computers for one or two days. They could put their name on a list, get a computer with a specific number, and in that way be able to borrow it. We mentioned Mendy, the genius 15 year-old that Bill visited the other day who was in the program last year and has since made his own radio-operated hydraulic model trucks and construction vehicles. He doesn’t have access to a computer, but the things he could do if he had one are amazing.

The principal agreed. He also mentioned he wants to get an internet hookup for the school. We couldn’t have been more pleased when he walked out the door.

I wiped my forehead of fake sweat the minute he left. Everyone laughed as we sighed in unison. We made it. From here on out, things would be different. We may not have 100% of his trust, but we have certainly moved mountains today.

I then asked if everyone wanted the good stuff or the bad stuff first. They said the good stuff.

I was so proud of everyone and congratulated them on an amazing class. Before the principal had come, I had told them to run class today like they would like to run it in the future. After class, I told them that if they ran class the way they did today, this program would be strong for a long time. I was very, very happy with our work today.

Then came the bad stuff.

I made a list of ways to measure success in the pilot. If we achieve all six things, we will succeed. I then read the list out loud. It involved six things:

-Using the teaching method outlined in Waveplace- allowing the kids to have fun, nurturing and encouraging them, not making them feel bad, working as a team to teach the lessons, and, as Tim has said, being “comfortable with confusion.”
-Developing a system that they can hold in the long term- not only logistical details like a place and time to have class, but shouldering the responsibility to see class through if something goes wrong, if they lose contact with Waveplace for whatever reason, if they don’t know what to do next. Making sure the program continues regardless.
-Teaching one lesson per day, and following suit with our six-week plan.
-Keeping computers in regular use by the students (ie not stopping the program).
-One other thing I forgot

And finally, regular attendance by mentors.

I became very stern (“Bad Beth” came out) and I told them that they cannot miss class or be late. I was very upset with the fact that some mentors rolled in at 12:45 when they were supposed to be in class at 12:30 and in the mentor meeting at 12:15. ESPECIALLY today- the most important day of the week- and we had told them that multiple times before. The kids come to class on time, many of the mentors come on time, why can’t they? I asked them if there was a circumstance that was causing people to be late. Because if there was, we could change it. We are responsible for our own class so we can change the rules if we can’t meet them. They said no, it wasn’t anything they couldn’t change. I told them that their tardiness was insulting to the people that came on time. There is no reason why they should take advantage of other people’s time like that. If you’re not coming to class on time, then you’re not teaching during that time. And if you’re not teaching, what in the world are we paying you for?

The teachers took what I said very seriously. Some of them started to point fingers about who is late more regularly. Finally it quieted down and Emmanuel spoke up. He said he understood and completely agreed with us. “Trust me,” he said. “It’s not going to happen anymore.” The other mentors nodded.

I took a moment to explain that I wasn’t trying to be mean. It’s just that we’re in a very critical period of time for this program. We need to PROVE- not only to the principal, though he is important, but to the entire OLPC community- that we can do this program! That it can work! But in order to do that, we can’t afford to make mistakes. We have to be on time. We have to have our game faces on. We have to go to class everyday and leave everyday as winners.

Olsen’s face softened. “Class was good today,” he said. “But tomorrow will be better.”

That’s the spirit. I knew they had it in them.

In the afternoon, Jean Jean, Antoine, one of the new mentors and her father and brother (and Bill and Benaja and I) went for a walk in the forest where we drank coconuts and munched on sugar cane. It was my first sugar cane experience and it was delicious, but only about as delicious as it can be eating pure sugar until you realize this is probably very bad for you.

This day had a rough start. And there is certainly still lots of work to be done in this program. But in many ways, the day was also full of sweet endings. And we were grateful for every one of them.

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