Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Laptops/What the kids are actually up to

Okay, so yesterday we gave laptops to a bunch of kids. What are they going to do with them, exactly?

What indeed? They are going to be tricked into learning critical reasoning skills, computer-code writing, high school math, graphic arts, coherent and interesting story-telling... we're teaching these little school kids how to actually think! Something that doesn't happen nearly often enough in today's schools.

Specifically, the kids are learning digital storytelling. The 30-hour/30-lesson Waveplace Foundation project is all focused on one end result: an animated story, created, designed, and executed entirely by the children. The teachers give them the guidance they need to manipulate the software, and they help the kids along the way if they forget something. If a child wants to try something even harder than what the course teaches - which has already happened, just in the first class - then that's great, and the teachers are there to lead them through it. The children also teach each other to a remarkable degree. I was shocked to see how helpful and kind they can be. My peers and I weren't exactly as nice to each other when I was a squirt.

Most of the learning takes the form of trial and error. For instance, my project is to take my dog Stubby surfing (she'll have a goal and some obstacles along the way, but I haven't gotten that far). I drew Stubby yesterday in Lesson 1, then learned how to make her move around the screen in Lesson 2. I wrote code, which made her complete a square, 90-degree angles included (yes, the kids are learning high school geometry!) To get Stubby to go in a triangle instead of a square, I'd have to remove one line of code (3 sides = 3 turns, not 4, of course), and I'd have to turn those 90-degree angles into 120-degree angles.

We actually did this very exercise when Tim Falconer, the founder and president of Waveplace, was here in February. 25 migrant kids from RCMA, 8- and 9-year-olds, were plugging in numbers, trying to get the cartoon to travel in a triangle. They made many mistakes, learning that it was not only okay to do so, but that it was actually a lot of fun. Then they hit upon the right numbers, and - voila! The cartoon moved the way they wanted it to.

Imagine if you will how powerful they felt at that moment! These are some of the most disenfranchised children in the entire country. But they had just learned a skill, worked diligently to figure out a problem, failed and tried and failed and tried, and finally made it - all on their own.

As I said, that's in lessons 2 and 3. They'll be doing that tomorrow. By next Monday, they'll be even further along. First, they'll learn to create art, move it, and make it look like it's actually moving - legs walking, head turning, mouth opening and closing (one project is a dinosaur eating stars, for some reason). All that's just warm-ups. Once they've mastered all that stuff, they'll outline their actual story and begin to craft it on the screen.

Can you tell I'm excited? Spend an hour with these kids, and you will be, too. You can't sufficiently express the magnitude of this project with the written word - though I dare members of the press to try!