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Friday, December 18, 2009

Heart of a Culture

Part of the wonder of this project is being able to visit the heart of a culture – their children. It still amazes me how we've gotten to understand and know the children of this island within the context of their school lives. In a school one also sees how a community cares and teaches its children the knowledge it wishes to impart. Much like our visit to Africa, we are discovering the children here to be curious, affectionate, and open to us. In these communities, though also in poverty, there is an even greater knowledge of technology and how to use it. The schools however still do not seem to possess much. We find that the children may or may not know how to read.
Today we are compiling all our findings and I thought that it would be good to share some of my observations on the localities in which we ran the game tests.

Dennery: When we arrived in at the school in Dennery, we drove into a large empty parking lot to a series of low buildings that were had U shaped courtyards. Water faucets were outdoors (as we discovered they were at all the schools). There were two sports fields behind the buildings. One had a chain link fence surrounding it and a cricket match was in play. Despite 80 degree heat the players were in full uniform similar to old-fashioned baseball uniforms from around the turn of the century on the US. The field without the fence was the soccer/football field. Dogs and goats wandered freely in the parking lot and sat under the eves for shade.

The children were selected by the physical education teacher/coach. They all were football enthusiasts. As we were let into the classrooms the children were lined up outside the building sitting on a ledge. The classrooms were a bit ragged with open concrete grid work for ventilation.

The desks were an assemblage of wooden hand made child sized picnic tables or desks made of wood similar to the desks in our game but no metal legs. One classroom in particular was very gaily painted with primary colors and messages and objects upon the walls – it was their music room. Later we discovered that it was done by our PMC coordinator Alleyne’s wife.

Vieux Fort: After along drive through narrow twisting roads where cars passed –but just barely we arrived in Vieux Fort some children were waiting for us. Wendi logged the children in as rooms were opened up for us to test in. Each group of testers got a single classroom. The classrooms were like an arrow pointing to the highway (widest in Saint Lucia that we encountered) and were loud due to the proximately to the highway especially that classroom nearest the road (about 40 feet from the road).

Here horses walked freely along the roadside along with short versions of tractor-trailers and cars. The schoolyard was set up in a U shape with a high fence solid all around. The courtyard was paved with blacktop and exposed fully to the sun. Behind it was the technical school and playing fields. These classrooms seemed even poorer than those in Dennery with broken furniture, floor tiles, and water on the classroom seats from rain coming through the ceiling. Again it was open grid work ventilation. The desks were like those in our game for the most part. The chalkboards were dark green and light green some that could hardly take chalk anymore. Some signs were on the walls that contain motivational phrases, some information posters but not many.

Soufriere: Soufriere seemed to be geographically more remote. It is on the Caribbean coastline and to get to it, one drives a very rugged coastline through some very poor looking coastal towns. The town itself, though it is a tourist destination for the cruise ships is ramshackle and looks glued together. There is a coconut oil processing plant across from the school. It seems to be falling apart but has recently gotten a government grant to be updated. It used to employ about 300 workers and now has about 50.

When we arrived at Soufriere we drove into a school that had a classroom facilities and architecture much like those we had seen before but it was in one of the most spectacular settings with the Pitons rising above the school courtyard. The fenced in school and courtyard were off the road with large trees in the courtyard. It was colorful and looked inviting.

However we were not to do the testing in the classrooms. Instead there was a long building that housed the teacher resource room. It was air-conditioned and full of many sorts of learning materials: posters, manipulatives, and even books! This meant again that we would share the testing space. Two groups were in one room with conference like furniture. The other three were in a classroom like setting more familiar to American eyes with tables and chairs sized to groups of children.

However there was confusion when we arrived due to miscommunication. The person who had arranged to host us was an official of the football association and a local coach. They thought an American Football Team was coming to play against their team! There was a large football stadium behind the school complex. It had the largest playing field in Saint Lucia until they recently build the stadium for it. The stadium had multiple tiers of seats, an announcer room and a roof. It was full of mothers and children who had expected the American team. There was a young boy with a crowd of other young boys around him avidly playing upon his Nintendo DS.

A football match was live in session between two towns in the field. These children were our test subjects.

The coach could not pull the young people form their match which had two more hours to go. So after much negotiation and flexible thinking we were able to round up a group first of ten – then twenty children! We only needed ten children for the best results. They fell nicely within the demographics for our game. We split the group into two under a large tree in front of the Teachers’ Resource building. Wendi and I took half of the group of eight ranging in age from nine to thirteen and sat outside asking the marketing questions. A big takeaway for me was that they accessed the web both on the computer and through mobile. Often this was through the use of relatives’ hardware. They all played games – especially anything to do with football/soccer. And many used Facebook and some played Farmville. Another ah ha was that they have a girl on their football team much like in our game concept. Luckily she was one of the children being tested in the building by our Champlain team. She was the football coach’s niece.

The lack of ability to read should not be surprising. Much like in Africa, in general the classrooms here do not contain much. There is a definite lack of reading materials available in the schools. No books and yet the children manage to access the web through mobile and computer. Truly if information could be delivered in an engaging way (what is more engaging to a child than play and games) through the internet, we could educate a world – and in doing so compound the human capital and end poverty and much more besides. So do I believe in educational games? This trip only reinforces my belief. Do I think the entertainment world will rise to the question? Not yet. Do I think we are working towards solutions and that this process will deliver on this? Sure do.

Close-up photo of young boy in red shirt by Mollie Coons during our tests.

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