When History Comes to Meet Us

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Photograph of Marjorie Williams and her daughters from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.
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Information board from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.

My last column in the Gleaner was published in April this year. For the time being I’ve decided to take a break from writing a column to focus on other projects which need my attention and time. Will resume writing on Active Voice as and when time permits. Thanks for tuning in!

At a discussion after a sneak preview of the film Four Days in May, a documentary about  what survivors experienced during the blitzkrieg we refer to as the Tivoli incursion a young man said:  “We can all remember where we were when history came and met us.”

“It come like a war zone. Caw dem a drop three bomb eno. Nuff a mi fren dem dead. After di incursion mi can tell yu seh mi guh funerALS,” said another resident who can’t forget what happened to his community in 2010, when the armed forces conducted their search for Dudus, the strongman of Tivoli Gardens on whom the United States had placed a bounty.

History will record that the most senior custodians of the state lied about what took place during those 4 days. They said there were no bombs; there was no surveillance drone when men and women had seen it with their own eyes; they did not ‘recall’ any such thing;  moreover no angels had died in Tivoli. The 73 or so civilians who were killed should be seen as collateral damage they implied. What is worse is that large swathes of Jamaican society agreed with this view of things.

Nearly 8 years later the country has had to bring back limited states of emergency in different parts of the country after declaring them zones of special operations—ZOSO. While the clampdown in Montego Bay seems to have contained the spiraling violence there, it feels as if the criminals have simply scattered to different parts of the country. How else to understand the murderous turn of events in August Town as soon as 2017 ended and 2018 began?

In a remarkable article called “Teaching In The Line Of Fire” published in the Gleaner on March 5, UWI senior lecturer Saran Stewart tried her best to raise the alarm about what is going on in the country. For those of us who live and work in this corner of Kingston the last few weeks have been punctuated by gunfire, sometimes so loud it seems to be on the UWI campus itself. Wrote Saran:

It is now month three of the new year and the shots have left the dead of night and ring loudly in the peak morning time when children are still walking to school. Our educators teach in the line of fire and not only in the community of August Town, but also Denham Town, Flankers, Norwood, Cambridge and Rose Heights, just to name a few. In these communities gunmen trade bullets for the simplest necessity, such as a tin of mackerel, and barter lives for a ‘bills’ ($100). I have taught numerous students from volatile communities, whether they were born and raised there or currently boarding. Trying to centre their minds about the philosophies of education becomes futile when my students learn first-hand the ideologies of gun violence. As an educator, I have had to drift from the standard course outline and include students’ lived experiences as a mechanism to navigate their realities and consciously re-centre the course around their true learning environments. There are students who write their papers in the shell of their bathrooms by candlelight as it is the safest concrete box in the house. When the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) suspends bus services, how do children leave those said communities to go to school? As educators, we try to find ways for students to unlearn what they perceive as standard, normal activity such as seeing mourning, orphaned children, weekly funeral gatherings, yellow ‘caution’ tape, bullet holes, blood stains, smelling gun powder, and reading WhatsApp messages stating, “Daddy dead”.

Yet this excellent article remained relatively unnoticed while the media exploded in an orgy of moral outrage about silly statements by members of one political party calling a member of the other party “black royalty”. Day after day for the entire week radio talk shows gave oxygen to this banal nonsense as if we live in Switzerland or Singapore and have nothing else to worry about.

When one of Saran Stewart’s students texted her from August Town to say that her assignment would be late as a family member had been shot dead Stewart asked her to forget the assignment and document her raw emotions instead. This is part of what she wrote:

“Over 20 years of blood shed! Has violence become my norm? Without thinking about my answer to this question, I would immediately say ‘yes’, crime and violence has become my norm. Born and raised in the community of August Town, nestled in a valley in the parish of St Andrew, surrounded by hills, the Hope River and in close proximity to two universities, this is my community.”

There’s more but is anyone listening? Is this really how we want our youngsters to meet history? Brutalized, shattered and traumatized, with no one even willing to pay attention when they write or talk about it?

One Laptop per Child reaches Jamaica

What the One Laptop per Child project is doing in Jamaica…

 

 

Recently I had a conversation with Sameer Verma of San Francisco State University about an innovative venture he’s involved with — the One Laptop per Child project. Verma, an open source software (OSS) activist, was invited by Professor Evan Duggan, Executive Director of the Mona School of Business and new Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona, whom he went to school with, to spearhead the OLPC project in Jamaica. According to the OLPC Jamaica website:

OLPC Jamaica is a general interest group for the One Laptop per Child initiatives in Jamaica. The group started at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, Jamaica on 5th September, 2008. Compelled by the belief that the OLPC has considerable potential for enhancing the efficient delivery, and improved Pedagogy in early childhood education in Jamaica, OLPC Jamaica intends to foster interest, generate ideas and learn from experiences about OLPC both on the UWI campus and in its neighboring communities.
The Group is currently embarked on deployment pilots of the OLPC concept in two local schools:
– The August Town Primary School, located in the heart of the August Town community in the University’s Township neighborhood
– Providence Methodist Basic school, located on the premises of the Providence Methodist Church in Liguanea

Now in its fourth year Verma pointed out some of the recent findings from the pilot project in August Town where Grade 4,5 and 6 students are involved. Each laptop, equipped with wireless connectivity, multimedia software, an edition of Wikipedia, games and recording equipment is provided to the youngest child in each family, there not being enough laptops to be given to every child at school. The computer belongs to them for the year, and they are allowed to take it home. One outcome of this is that children are teaching their parents or caregivers various things using the laptops.

Children at August Town Primary showing off their Xo laptops. Photo: Varun Baker

One of the interesting findings in August Town Primary has been that the most popular software on it has been a math game called TuxMath. It is the most frequently used item on the laptop and technicians who occasionally upgrade the software said that children who had somehow lost the game during upgrades would bother them endlessly to have it put back on. Lest you dismiss this as a mere game (as the blurb says’ TuxMath lets kids hone their arithmetic skills while they defend penguins from incoming comets, or offers them a chance to explore the asteroid belt with only their factoring abilities to bring them through safely!’)  the principal of the school said that normally when Grade 4 students are tested their numeracy scores sit in the mid 40s; for the batch who had played the TuxMath game the numeracy score rose to 61%. At a time when educators are discussing the lack of qualified math teachers in the school system the experience of the children in August Town Primary is particularly instructive.

TuxMath

Verma has met with Ministry of Education personnel to discuss the next step which is the production of textbooks as e-books. While enthusiastic about this, Ministry officials also seem locked into a Kindle mentality, that is, thinking that the adoption of e-books necessitates e-book-readers such as Kindles or Nooks to read the electronic textbooks, whereas Verma is trying to persuade them that this is unnecessary and even counterproductive to the kind of learning the OLPC project is promoting. In fact e-book reading software can easily be downloaded and added to the Xo laptops allowing children to read their school texts on the same machine they use for multimedia activity daily.

According to Verma this speaks to a deeper issue. “Learning is not just about consumption, it also has to be about production because creativity means I learn, I absorb and then I produce something. Book readers are a one-way process.” Interactivity is a core feature of the software provided on Xo laptops. Verma explains: For example there’s a game that will show you a river crossing and a train waiting to cross the river but there’s no bridge. The child’s task is to use drawing tools to build a bridge and connect it and make it strong enough for the train to go across. Then you hit go and the train starts crossing but if the bridge structure isn’t strong enough it crashes to the ground and you have to go back and build another bridge. Laws of physics and measurement come into play and over a process of building and rebuilding until you manage to get the train across a child learns many scientific and creative principles.

The Jamaican experiment with OLPC is funded/supported by several partners: Pace Canada, UWI’s Township Project, LIME and the Early Childhood Learning Commission. OLPC is being used in 47 countries.  In Peru the Ministry of Education funds it and there are 1.1 million laptops. Uruguay however, has the highest density with 100% saturation in primary school, every primary schoolchild getting a laptop when they start school. According to Verma the focus in Peru is different. In addition to integrating it into schoolwork they have a full programme during summer vacation where the laptops are used for summer vacation activities which count towards something at school. For older children in higher grades they’ve also attached robots to the laptops enabling children to explore all sorts of other capabilities. Different countries use the project for different ends and in different ways.  In Afghanistan where girls have been forbidden from going to school by the Taliban, the laptops come in particularly useful allowing female students to stay at home and learn. In Nepal everything has been translated into Nepali and is completely content-driven.

In Jamaica UWI has provided student interns to work in the field. What is needed now is for one major funder to come on board or failing that the Ministry of Education. Having a number of small partners creates a problem with ‘ownership’, if no one feels total ownership, its difficult to move the project forward as is needed. For more information view the video below and link to the OLPC Jamaica website. Also check here for beautiful photos of the children in the August Town project.