Oct 26, 2010

Out and about with the "computer babes"

For the children in the rural communities outside Granada, the thought of getting a chance to work on a computer was merely a pipe dream until La Esperanza Granada sourced 22 mini-computers earlier this year. Now our crack team, Audrey and Karla, visit five schools in the region every week to give the children valuable educational game time. CIARAN TIERNEY joined them on Monday.

In terms of job satisfaction, it must be hard to beat that experienced by volunteer Audrey and ayudante Karla when they visit the schools around Granada every weekday.
For the children in five schools greet the two attractive young women as though they were two female versions of Santa Claus, because for many of them the arrival of the mini-computers is the highlight of the week.
Their arrival results in mass hysteria, as the youngsters eagerly await the chance to play electronic (but educational, mind you!) games which seem to be far more interesting than their routine classes in the La Epifania, Angela Morales, San Ignacio, Juan Diego or Elba Zamora schools. For the poor teachers, the visits of Karla and Audrey must be a hard act to follow!
Their working day begins in the La Esperanza Granada office in the heart of the city just after 9 a.m. when Karla and Audrey arrive to take the machines out of the big, secure cabinet where they have been left to recharge overnight.
One by one, the little computers are placed into containers which resemble plastic lunch boxes before being loaded into the La Esperanza van. Audrey, from France, has the task of driving the van to each of the schools every day, while Karla - a bright young graduate of one of the schools we work with - is on hand to coordinate everything with the staff in the schools.
Karla, who is studying Engineering Systems in University every Saturday, would not have been able to go to University but for the generosity of the La Esperanza sponsors. Identified as one of the brightest and best at her school, La Epifania, she works with La Esperanza five days a week and has her third level studies funded on the weekends.
Today we were going to her former school and, among the excited children, we meet her younger sister. Clearly, the Monday school visits have a special significance for Karla, as she returns every week to the place where she was educated herself before going on to College.
There was certainly no hint of the Monday morning blues among the three of us as we negotiated the streets of Granada in the glorious early morning sunshine, heading south on the road towards Rivas before Audrey took the tricky turn into the school.
In the yard, we could see some of our fellow volunteers, working one-on-one with some of the children with special needs. Sandi, from Canada, was allowing one girl to blow bubbles every time she got five questions right while young Lara, from Germany, was carrying her pupil on her back. I'm not sure exactly what Lara's class was about!
When we crossed the school grounds, I pitied the first grade teacher when her youngsters noted the arrival of the van, because excitement reached fever pitch and the class was quickly abandoned. The children were full of gratitude once they saw us and most of them were thrilled by the chance to try out the arithmetic and spelling games.
After the teacher called for silence, and their desks were ordered into something resembling straight lines, Karla and Audrey distributed the little machines among the youngsters before hitting the magic ''on'" buttons. The transformation was incredible!
Suddenly, a class which had been full of noise ten minutes earlier descended into complete silence as the youngsters began to concentrate on their educational games. Basic addition or subtraction became far more interesting when there were animated figures on the small screens.
It becomes clear that some of the youngsters have learning difficulties, as basic tasks such as adding two numbers became big problems. In Nicaragua, part of the culture in the schools is that the gifted students answer for everyone and, without any hint of competition among the pupils, some are inevitably left behind. When everyone copies an item from the blackboard, some simply don't learn. It's one of the realities our team of 30-plus volunteers learn to deal with on a daily basis during their time here.
But at least the cartoon characters who encourage them on the screen give the six and seven year olds far more of an incentive to learn.
Throughout the class, the youngsters would occasionally call out to Audrey or Karla for assistance, perhaps with adding two numbers or spelling a phrase. For 40 minutes the teacher had a break from her routine and the youngsters were simply thrilled.
Because the computers only have a short battery life, the girls have decided that each computer class should not last more than 40 minutes. So, for most of the children, the time passes too quickly and there is just a hint of disappointment when they are put back into the boxes.
For the "computer girls", the end of the first graders' class means a short walk across the school grounds to another classroom where about 15 second graders have been waiting expectantly for their arrival.
Expertly, Karla and Audrey convert the computers over to slightly more complicated writing games and Karla encourages the children by writing phrases on the blackboard.
For some children, these classes can be frustrating as they struggle to come to terms with the complexity of the games. Meanwhile, others simply shine.
All too soon, the plastic boxes are being packed again for our return to the city, and it was humbling to experience the genuine expressions of appreciation for our visit from the youngsters. They left their desks to shake our hands, hug us, and thank us.
I put it to Audrey that she has one of the best jobs in the world, even if it is unpaid. She said she loves the joy which the computers bring to the children in the schools, but sometimes misses the one-on-one interaction which most of our volunteers have with individual children in particular schools.
Unlike the vast majority of our volunteers, Audrey does not go to the same school every day to work with the same children.
But it can't be that bad when a whole generation of schoolchildren around Granada look up to you as a young, female, French version of Santa Claus!

2 comments:

  1. Hi Ciaran. Another great blog and what an insight into primary school education in Nicaragua... the comparison with my local primary school in UK is very sobering... where each child in the last two years of our primary school has a netbook (or is it a notebook?!) provided by the school to use in class. That's 120 pupils. And every single classroom (that's 15 including the nursery) has a "smartboard", all sorts of educational programs, internet access, etc. And this is not a particularly wealthy area... 40 minutes is nothing by comparison, is it? You are all doing a BRILLIANT job over there, with or without computers, and I really do hope that you are able to help the less able children in some way to learn their basic skills. Best wishes to you all and keep up the good work, you're doing a splendid job!

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  2. Thanks Hilary,

    Any time you might think of losing hope here, all you have to do is look at the way most of our volunteers work one-on-one with individual children. The teachers normally identify four or five with special needs and then they get a chance to bond with the foreign volunteers during private tutorials. With the two month commitment our volunteers give, they soon build up great bonds, and time (plus care and attention) is the greatest gift we can give to these wonderful children,

    Ciaran

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