Sunday, April 17, 2011

Computer Project Underway

It has been just one month since the Grand Opening of the computer room at school. Everyday I have classes here I am excited by what I see. It thrills me to see the smiles, some huge and others just little ones of triumph matched with bright, interested eyes as students learn to use a mouse for the first time or navigate their way through tasks. It is exhilarating to see EVERY student actively involved in the learning process. I love that I can easily modify what individual kids do based on their skill level. Some can be reading English stories while others are practicing the alphabet. 

Currently all of the third and fourth grades are having one English lesson a week in the computer room. I also have taken my 1st graders a couple of times as well. Last Friday I introduced the computer lab, using the Bulgarian Language program to three of the five second grades. I hope to do the last two tomorrow. Equally as thrilling as watching the students’ reactions is seeing the excitement of the teachers as they watch their students. One fourth grade teacher who is very skilled with computers takes her class to the lab for Geography and History twice a week. A third grade teacher has her group there for a variety of subjects four times a week. And we have an extra curricular class for fourth graders as well. This level of usage is exceeding my expectations in just three short weeks (we had a 12 day vacation in the last month).  The difficulty will come in building the confidence of the majority of the teachers so that they feel confident and comfortable doing these lessons on their own.

Other benefits I was expecting and am seeing are difficult to measure, but certainly present. Children matched in pairs are not always with their best friend. In fact boys are often with girls and children who do not associate with each other may be working together on the same computer. All but one pairing has worked well, expanding each child’s sphere and social skills. Classes in the computer lab are much much quieter and behavior is not a problem. The kids are made to take a “time out” away from the computers for not listening, or being late for class. They are being taught how to “read” and follow an outline of the daily lesson posted on the white board, making them more independent, with much less time spent waiting for help. Little things like individual charts are allowing them to work on their own as well and be successful more quickly.  In general, schools here do not provide the tools for kids to be thinkers and independent learners. Everything is taught to large groups, with copying being the primary mode of information acquisition. Kids are constantly checking “Is this right? Or “like this?” in their other classes. I hope using computers gives them an opportunity to approach learning in a new way.

The Grand Opening was quite an event. I was frustrated that I had to wait two weeks once the computer lab was ready before I could start bringing kids into it. But our director wanted to have a grand opening with the press and staff members from Peace Corps and the local municipality present. Coordinating all that took time.  The week leading up to the event was equally frustrating as class after class was cancelled as three teachers worked very hard on the celebration. Everything had to be perfect. A group of fourth graders were familiarized with some of the programs and demonstrated their skills on the day of opening and my first graders showed how something as simple as a slide show accompanying a song can enhance learning.  There were speeches and gifts, a ribbon cutting and the traditional sharing of bread and honey. In the end it was a great day except for all the press interviews I had to do.Even the kids had to endure the press!

I am now feeling the squeeze of time. I have only about 20 more days in school.  The kids have a few more than that but there are many four days weeks leading up to the end of school on May 31. I still have so much I want to do with the teachers in particular. The kids will benefit if the teachers use what is available to them after I leave. We will do more training in June, but there is nothing like having a teacher see first hand what computer learning can do for these kids. Twenty days and a few classes with each teacher is not much time to transfer skills.At one point in January,  while I was waiting for project approval and funding, I seriously considered withdrawing the project proposal. I was concerned there just would not be enough time to make this successful. Though it would be better for all of us if we had more time to nurture this project, we don't, but I sooooo very glad I did not withdraw it, as I feel many have already reaped the benefits and will continue to do so.  I will spend the summer, setting up systems to make it as easy as possible for the teachers to connect the computer programs to their lessons, and with the help of teachers like Petya, Lina and Tsveti who are already hooked, I'm confident that in time every child will have "the computer experience"!!!!!