Saturday, July 25, 2009

Peer tutors and the program structure

Date: July 21st 2009

Venue: Roman Catholic School, Sahn Malen

Ibrahim(one of our local friends from Sahn) lit a mosquito coil last night in the living room and I'm still reeling from its effects: sore throat, clogged sinuses, and a heavy head. The fact that right now I am sitting in a small room full of 130 kids, all hyper-excited about plugging their XOs in first doesn't help either.

I haven't posted for quite a while now, and there's a long backlog of topics that I need to talk about this week. The deployment has been coming along great since I last posted. We have moved on from training the peer tutors to working with the whole Class 5 population. This post is primarily going to be about our experience with that and about the structure of the program for this summer and beyond.

One observation from the pilot deployment in December of the 30 XOs in Sahn Malen(and I’m sure other deployments experienced the same) was that some students were much faster than teachers at becoming comfortable with and using the XO. So in addition to the regular XO usage during class, we decided to formulate an after-school program, which would be led by “peer tutors” from the secondary school and facilitated by five adult leads. We interviewed a shortlist of students, suggested by the class teachers at the secondary school, and selected a final 15(including 4 from the December deployment). Each of these selections was based on their proficiency in English and the ability to take time out after school for the program. They were assigned 8-9 children as their “tutees”, with whom they will work in groups throughout the summer and after class during the academic year, for at lea. As I already mentioned in a post, for the first two weeks, we worked solely with the peer tutors and class 5 teachers(partially because the class 5 children were having their exams until July 12th) so that they could get comfortable with the XOs before starting to work with the children. This peer-tutor approach has had several positive consequences(both intended and unintended):

  • Most class 5 children speak little or no English. Having peer tutors who can effectively communicate with us helps overcome what otherwise would have been an impossible language barrier.
  • Peer tutors have proven to be impressively fast learners; more so than the teachers and this especially suits our “flash deployment” which lasts only 10 weeks.
  • Organizationally, it has been much easier to deal with 15 groups than 130 grade five children. E.g. When we dish out the solar panels in the morning(we are still waiting for part of our consignment before we distribute them to the kids to take home), each of the peer tutors come up and get panels for their team. This saves us all an unnecessary scramble.
  • The success of the program is not dependant on only two individuals now(as would have been the case if we had only worked with each of the two class five teachers). The risk, as they say, is more spread out.
  • This approach is more anarchic and decentralized than a traditional classroom setting and the each child has more leeway in deciding what he/she wants to do.
  • Peer tutors will be able to lead the program beyond a single academic year as opposed to the teachers who teach a single grade every year.
  • Any attempts that we have made to lead training sessions with the children in a class-like manner, with us in the front, have failed miserably. I’m not sure if the children are just conditioned to tuning out when somebody stands in front of the blackboard or if the XOs are just too interesting to resist. In any case, what has worked is that we teach individual students something to do on a one-on-one basis and then it spreads like a virus throughout the group. With the peer tutors, we have 15 ready-made infecting sites, if you will, where we can inject the knowledge(sorry for the cheese, just couldn’t resist).

On the flip side though:

  • Because of focusing so much on the peer tutor program, we have not been able to pay adequate attention to the class 5 teachers, who are nevertheless expected to use the XOs as learning aides within class.
  • Most peer tutors are excellent teachers and in addition to picking up on the XOs fast, have worked extremely well with the students. However, there are a couple who are less patient with their peers. To these groups, we allocated some students from the December deployment who were doing extremely well with their XOs, in the hopes that they would be able to take lead in their groups and help the other kids too.
  • With an out-of-school program as the primary site for XO usage, it might not be very easy driving home the point that these XOs are, above anything else, educational machines.
  • Peer tutors are, in the end, secondary school students and have several other responsibilities(including studies and chores) which they may or may not prioritize over their responsibility as peer tutors. Teachers, on the other hand, are paid employees, expected by the community to work at least a certain number of hours with the children every day.

The last challenge is somewhat addressed by our scholarship program for the peer tutors, whereby we will pay the school fees for the peer tutors for a year, contingent upon their continuous participation in the program.

All in all, however, we are very happy with the way this approach has worked so far. We’re looking forward to more projects from the group so that we can gauge the effectiveness of this approach even better.

Besides the 15 peer tutors and two class 5 teachers, we have a team of five adult leads, which includes:

  • Mr. Anthony Lebbie: A teacher at the local secondary school, Mr.Lebbie will be the after-school program coordinator and the learning lead of the program. His responsibilities include coordinating daily after-school gatherings of peer-tutor groups, facilitating the peer tutors in making productive learning activities, maintaining continuous communication with us after we have left and relaying samples of activities that the children do to us by email.
  • Mr. Alfred Sulaiman: An electronics technician by profession, Mr. Sulaiman had been maintaing the generator since the December deployment(no mean feat since the machinery broke barely a month into the deployment and required maintenance before almost every startup). He will be the technical lead for the program, responsible for maintaining the generator, the solar-powered battery setup for the server and the routers, the XOs and the server. For the latter four, he received basic training from us during the last three weeks. Alfred will also use the old generator to set up a cellphone-charging business and use part of the income generated for providing fuel(2 gallons/week) and general maintenance(spark plugs, tuning etc.) for the new Honda generator, the acquisition of which Carlos so skillfully described in the last post.
In addition, Mr. Michael Brima, Mr. Mohamed Lahai and Ms. Judith Kebbie are the community volunteers who will assist Anthony and Alfred with the program.

Anthony and Alfred will receive a basic stipend to help them offset any costs they incur on behalf of the program.

Besides this, our only running cost would be the scholarship fund for the peer tutors, 10,000 Le(3$)/month for generator oil, 45,000 Le(15$)/month for internet and any XO spare parts that we decide to send to the team here.

So there's a dry but hopefully thorough attempt at documenting the structure of our deployment here in Sahn Malen. I'm off now, it's been a long day.



P.S: The posts are a bit bland without pictures I believe, but we have limited bandwidth and power and so do check back in August and I'll spruce all these posts up with relevant pictures.

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