Archive for September, 2010

Jenny (Tuesday, 2010 September 28)

September 29th, 2010

Jenny is a little bit of a flake, but in a good way, I think. She and Ryan were here last weekend (i.e. 9 days ago), and I wrote down some of her wisdom:

I was bored one day, so I peeled a lot of garlic.

[About a "pont du singe", "monkey bridge", which is made of thin, flexible tree trunks:] It’s like a ballpit, but with sticks.

If I don’t pay attention to what I’m writing, my hand autocompletes in English.

Here is a picture of Jenny and Ryan:

See, Ryan had put three-quarters of this "WOOF" sticker on his phone, to distinguish it from all the other trainees’ phones. But he’d thought he’d thrown away the "W". But Jenny, whose last name begins with a W, had taken it! Thus Ryan’s comment: "Jenny! You are the W to my OOF!"

To represent a miscommunication she and I had, she drew this comic.


Fiches de Progression (Suite) (Sunday, 2010 September 26)

September 26th, 2010

Here are the "schemes of work" I came up with for Informatique. Theory I’m more-or-less on/ahead of schedule for every class. Practice I’m falling behind; I’ve been re-doing lessons because they don’t figure stuff out the first time.

Uploaded: fiche de progression 4e.odt (OpenDocument Text, 22.0 KiB)
Uploaded: fiche de progression 3e.odt (OpenDocument Text, 22.0 KiB)
Uploaded: fiche de progression 2e.odt (OpenDocument Text, 23.0 KiB)
Uploaded: fiche de progression 1ere.odt (OpenDocument Text, 21.0 KiB)
Uploaded: fiche de progression tle.odt (OpenDocument Text, 22.0 KiB)


More testing (Saturday, 2010 September 25)

September 25th, 2010

Spent the entire day hacking. Well, almost, the entire day: from just after waking up, through breakfast, to when the power went out (when I switched to reading); and then, after the power came back, until now, nearly bedtime. I was working on the software I use to upload stuff to my blog here, and I’m very happy with the results. So here, have some images.

This is Jessica W. at graduation ("swearing-in"), demonstrating the intensity of the pockets on her dress.

Bonheur and Parfait, the little siblings to Boris (the one who is my neighbor and student). Yes, their names really translate as "Happiness" and "Perfect".

Boris (the other one) and Ryan. Ryan complained that he was tired of walking, so Boris offered to carry him.


Revision (Saturday, 2010 September 25)

September 25th, 2010

Another week is over. Fridays are my best and my worst days, because there are seven hours of class, but they’re my oldest and thus most advanced classes. Read: most likely to remember what they did last week, most likely to think critically, most likely to listen to what I said the first time, etc.

This is now the third week of classes. That means I’ve officially introduced myself to every class. In each class I did that, I started with "What is informatique?" and "Why are we studying informatique?" Informatique, I explained, is not just (as they all parroted back) "The science of rational and automatic treatment of information". To me, informatique is "the art of convincing the computer to do what we want it to do". But why study it if there are no computers? Hilarion asked me this question back at stage and I came up with this answer: originally I came here to teach informatique because I thought it would be a good opportunity for the development of Africa’s economy, to improve its standard of living. But being here and seeing the "poverty" with new eyes, I came to conclude that informatique-as-industry-for-Africa is wrong-headed. My students are a long way from writing web apps or taking contract work, and anyhow, money isn’t the thing that’s missing in the Africa equation. So I had to find another reason to teach informatique, and that’s the reason I gave in class: we study it because "informatique gives us a method to study information, organization, and complex processes". Last weekend I spoke with Ryan and Jenny, and I tried to make the case that the actual informatique stuff we’re teaching them is pretty worthless. Networks, in 4e, is a perfect example. Networks aid in the transmission of data, of information, of files. But none of those concepts mean anything to my students! How can we teach them about networks if they don’t know what a file is? We can teach them about the idea of networks, which are pervasive — there are networks of roads which facilitate transport of goods. There are non-informatique services, like electricity and water, which are centralised or distributed. All of those concepts are (I dare say) more important than token ring or FDDI crap.

Granted, the "history of informatique" stuff in Tle and 2e, or the binary/boolean logic stuff in 3e, that’s gonna be a little harder to apply.

Anyhow, Friday. First class was Terminale, who is doing "programmation" in the practice section. First hour was theory, which we started with a revision, "review", specifically "What did we do last time?" "Monsieur! We opened DrPython." OK, good, DrPython is an environment for the language Python. After that, what did we do? (We explored the interactive shell using expressions and variables.) "Monsieur, we convinced the computer to do what we wanted it to do." Which rendered me helpless with laughter for a little while. I kind of <3 my Terminales.

Whereas in 1ere I tried to have the same lesson that Terminale had the week before without complete success. The ones on the Linux machines couldn’t figure out that even though we were going to do programmation, they might find DrPython under the "Programmation" menu. I have been a little harsh with students like that, who do not seem to pay attention to the instructions, or do not poke around on the ordinateur in the correct places. Example: I explain how to open DrPython ("those of you on Windows, there is an ‘Education software’ folder on the desktop. Open that, then open the DrPython folder, then find the drpython file and open that"; leave aside for the moment that they have no idea what Windows is and whether they are on it). After this brief explanation, I notice that two computers have Microsoft Word open. When they say they have no idea what to do, I suggest they ask the students who seem to have an idea. About ten minutes later, one of the students complains that he couldn’t figure out what to do because the computer is in English. Of course, the explanation I gave doesn’t require being able to read English, so at this point I became a little irritated.

Last night I spoke with Gus about this. I’m not sure she believes it, but she seemed to suggest that I should be doing more handholding with these kids — explaining each step, repeating myself for the students who weren’t listening or didn’t get it the first time, explaining where students went wrong. Instead I have been doing none of those, responding to students with "What have you tried?" and "What are you looking for right now?" Correspondingly, a certain fraction of my class is frustrating for both me and the students. It certainly could be argued that the students just don’t have enough experience with computers to figure out how to do anything, and maybe they need to get a solid base before I can ask them to navigate the world of the computer by themselves.

I have been thinking this over since last night. My belief is that giving more direct and explicit instructions would be doing the students a disservice, but I’m not completely convinced of it.

Let me start by describing the lab. We have 15 computers in working order right now, and enough power outlets to add one more if I can assemble another computer out of the parts we have. They’re all P2/P3 class machines, with most having 128 MB of RAM. The 5 we just got are English Windows XP machines. There’s one Xubuntu machine (French), and two Lubuntu machines (French, but incompletely translated). The other 7 machines are Windows XP (French). The Windows machines generally have Microsoft Office 2003, except for one with 2007 and another with OpenOffice. (The English machines came with both Office 2003 and OO.o.) This diversity is intentional. I do not want to teach to a single vendor, or to a single interface. Informatique is not about memorizing series of steps — even if I could give steps that worked on all the different machines, or even if I gave series of steps for each computer. Informatique is about playing a game for which you don’t know the rules. Informatique is about reverse-engineering what some dickhead built. Informatique is about solving for "x".

So when I say "Open a spreadsheet; there are three on these machines, some with Microsoft Office Excel, some with OpenOffice Calc, and some with Gnumeric", I expect the students to open the menus and look around. I expect them to open "All programs", if for no other reason than that it says "All". I expect them to read the things that happen on the screen. If they forget what they’re looking for, I expect them to look at the board, where I wrote those three names. Similarly, if the numbers on their keyboard don’t work, but the numbers on their neighbors’ do, I expect them to look at the keyboards and try to figure out why they’re different. And if I encourage them to do exactly that, for example by saying "Is there anything different between your keyboard and hers?" I expect them to say "Look, there’s a light on hers labeled Num Lock, and on mine the light is off". These are the real skills of informatique, and I believe that by asking "What did you try?" and "What did you to make the computer do that?" they will be able to practice these skills better than if I said "Click on the Start Menu, open ‘All programs’, find, open that, and then click once on Calc." Those steps will change — example, even saving a file is different in Office 2003 and 2007.

The other side of the argument is that all of those things that we learn to do as informaticiens come from the experience of using the computer itself, that we bootstrapped from simple sets of steps to understanding of how menus and options work, and from there to filesystems, interface-independence, system administration, etc. After all, even libraries for use by developers often come with a tutorial or a quick-start guide with relatively explicit steps.

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this argument. It’s been so long since I’ve been a learner that maybe I can’t really imagine what it’s like. But I can’t help but feel like there’s something that the students here haven’t learned how to do, to look at differences, to get a clear idea of what your goal is, to look at your options, to keep trying something until you know it doesn’t work and then to try something really different. I think these accumulated skills fall under the umbrella category of "critical thinking", and I don’t think lists of steps help develop those capacities.

So for the time being I am going to continue to ask "What did you try?" and walk away if they respond with "The computer isn’t displaying" or "I can’t find it". We’ll see how it goes.

"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

—(unsourced; attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery. Wikiquote.)

I have been thinking about this for most of this week. (Evi posted it on her blog a little while ago.) Most of these students have no idea why they’re learning informatique, especially my 1ere class (I have 1ere "Arts", as distinct from 1ere "Math" or 1ere "Science"). It’s hard to think of a "vast and endless sea" that immediately strikes you as yearnable. There’s really only a couple things that the students do of their own accord — play games, and (sometimes) draw.

Sometimes, when I’m in the lab, working on computers or whatever, students walk in, ask if they can work, and then play on the computers. Sometimes students ask me if they can work during the breaks (there are three during the day; one is longer, for lunch). I’ve realized lately that I shouldn’t discourage this too much. (I heckle them a little bit; "Oh, is that what you call ‘work’ here in Cameroon?") It’s like Peter said back in stage: at least they’re doing something; they’re learning hand-eye coordination, if nothing else; and often they’re learning to guess the rules of a game that they don’t already know. And I bet it’s giving them a certain amount of practice in understanding the "secret" rules, the grand principles that underlie the desktop environment. So how to encourage this yearning? I’m putting Gimp on the machines, and sometimes, when I have a few minutes to kill during an application install or whatever, I mess around a little bit, try to create something that looks cool, or something that has the name of the Lycee, with hope that someone will decide to give it a try. I’m gonna try to put some graphics stuff into the practical section of the 1ere class. We’ll see how that goes too.

Side note. I’ve been using apt-offline to get drpython and other crap onto the Ubuntu-based machines. It’s a relatively neat piece of software when it works. But, sometimes a package fails to download because of my shitty USB-modem connection, and then I 1. cannot interrupt the other downloads, and 2. cannot retrieve only the missing packages later. I’ve also been thinking a little bit about how I want to set up user accounts on the machines; right now there’s just the "enseignant" ("teacher") account. Ideally I’d create an account for each class, or at least each grade, but I can never remember how to spell the names (and Lubuntu doesn’t show a list of available users). Maybe just one account called "eleves"? Not sure.

OK, I’ve hit 2000 words so I’ll stop here. Other than the above I guess everything has been going smoothly. Yesterday I ate a whole ripe avocat ("lawyer"). Can you believe I’ve been at post for more than a month, and that I still don’t have furniture? Petit à petit, as we in the biz say..


Marigot (Wednesday, 2010 September 22)

September 24th, 2010

As previously discussed, water is kind of a thing here. I feel like if I were to write a memoir, I could do worse for a title than "How to clean things using only dirty water". Speaking of which: To get water to wash myself with, I do the following.

Back door Trail

First, go out the front door of my house, cross the thirty feet to the back door of the compound, exit the compound, and follow the trail.

Slight decline Long view

The trail goes downhill.

About halfway down, really

The hill is pretty steep, the path is covered in moss and pretty slippery. I don’t think I’ve ever completely fallen, but I usually come close. I often get off the path and walk in the field, which is potentially being cultivated, and which makes me feel guilty, but unless someone wants to dig some footholds in the path I’m not really inclined to do anything about it. [In the month that I’ve been here, someone has indeed cut footholds into the hillside. It’s still pretty hard to keep your balance.]

Attention: ça glisse. ("Careful: it’s slippery.")

The fields I tend to tramp through.

The path bends a bit.

In the lower left: those are "steps", made of roots and rocks.

This is where it gets really overgrown. Also: the sound of buzzing insects reminding you that you are the guest here.

But this is the bottom of the hill, sorta, and there’s a marigot ("stream", or see Wiktionary: marigot). The water table is just above the ground here, so you have to step over/through mud.


Some vain attempts at coping:

Sticks? Branches?

The pure mountain stream itself:

And there’s a pipe that helps distinguishes the muddy water into a stream.

The stream is often covered in what looks like soapy foam, some kind of oil film, or other bizarre substances. The other day it was a gold-and-silver coating on the water in the mud.


Remember, I don’t drink from this stream (good lord, no) — only wash myself with it, and I bleach the water first.

There’s a little plastic dipper there too, and you can use it to collect water. I rinse the bucket first, which is kind of a wasted gesture because it’s a mountain stream, the water contains dirt.

The dipper Pouring the water Filling the dipper

Then it’s all the way back..

Long view Across the mud And up the hill

Back to the house, so we can depose the fruits of our labor:

Other volunteers have mistaken this "clean" water for water that I have already washed things in.

So that’s where I get my water to wash things. I also do laundry with this water. These days I have a giant "basin" that can hold two or three bucketfuls of dirty stream water, so I don’t have to make this trip as often. And there’s always the option to send kids. I’ve been told I really need to buy a fût, a barrel, made of metal or plastic, so I can keep water around for longer. Then you just pay some kids 500 CFA or so and they’ll fill the whole thing up! Sweet deal, but I feel like furniture is a bigger priority just yet. A table would be really nice..


Fatigué (Friday, 2010 September 17)

September 17th, 2010

Drained. 7 hours of class today. 1e was spunky without being disrespectful — they even went so far as to try to flirt with me. Whereas séconde had most of its students — they said 55 of them were present today. Yeesh. They were spunky while being disrespectful. Can’t say as I blame them; we’re covering "The History of Informatique" which is so boring even I don’t care about it. The good news is that there is so little to say that I think it’ll be over soon.

One thing that was utterly awesome, however. In séconde, when I said "I come from a little city called New York City", one of the students said, "Monsieur! That’s my name!" I couldn’t believe he was serious, so I said, "Show me." He did: his name is "Nou Yuok" something or other. "C’est super!" he said.

In the meantime I am reading Invent Your Own Computer Games With Python, which saved my bacon by giving me an alternative lesson plan for today’s Terminale class, based around the command prompt, rather than editing a file (which isn’t completely ready; drpython isn’t yet on the Linux machines and at least one Windows machine has a virus preventing them from installing wxWindows/wxPython).

Sometimes there are random smells, I often don’t even know where they come from, that give me cravings. Yesterday it was scallions. Today it was cat food. I’m concerned this means I’m turning into a prawn. Perhaps it simply means I’m suffering from some arbitrary nutritional deficiency. No worries.

One other amusing thing: my last class got a little rained out. Even when it’s inside, the roofs here are corrugated tin, so when it rains even a bit, it becomes basically impossible to hear anything anyone says. I got around this for a while by writing on the board but eventually gave up. As the rain started to thin I started to walk home. M. Dinesso, the head of department for Informatique, saw me and shouted, "Prof! Il pleut!" ("Professor! It’s raining!") We Americans like to say that Cameroonians speak in the "present obvious", which I maintain isn’t completely accurate, but this was a sterling example. So I decided to play with it. "Vraiment?" I said. "Ah bon? Il pleut?" ("Really? Oh yeah? It’s raining?") "Oui, prof! Il pleut!" "Où? Ici?" ("Where? Here?") I could have kept going for a while, but he gave up, performing a sort of bow-dip-acknowledging defeat gesture, and said "Vous êtes fort." ("You’re tough.") The cultural sidebar here is that people don’t walk in the rain here, no matter how light, no matter how heavy. It’s almost like they’re afraid, a country of adults afraid of rain. Have I mentioned that everything is weird here? I’ll come back to this theme later.


Incoherency (Thursday, 2010 September 16)

September 16th, 2010

Some days I am struck by the grand cosmic incoherency that is my life. Or I guess life in general here.

One thing that tends to accentuate this is speaking French to Germans, which seems to happen with surprising frequency.

I thought I’d refresh all the blogs the other Volunteers here keep. Most of them haven’t been updated since swearing-in. Not surprising; I’m sure everyone is super busy with their new schools. Notable exceptions include Lindsay [sp?] and Julia. Lindsay deserves special note here because when I first met her I thought "God, what a tool", or more precisely, "God, she is ‘of a type’", but that lady can write.

We got 5 new computers Monday, and they’ve been sitting in the principal’s office so that we could have a formal reception ceremony today. That ate up my two-hour free block between classes today, but they fed me. I meant to set up apt-offline today on the Ubuntu machines (two Lubuntu, one Xubuntu; I’m sticking with Lubuntu for the future), but my daylight hours just flew by. I’m hoping now to wake up early and get everything hammered out before my first class at 8, but I think we can guess how that’s going to go.

After the ceremony, the computers kind of sat out on the porch of the administration building for a while, since I had class. Then, after I started carrying them into the lab, the (what’s the official title?) bursar told me that he needed to take down the serial numbers and write them down in a notebook or something. Fuck, you couldn’t have done that earlier? So now the computers are safely in the lab but not set up because of bureaucratic nonsense.

None of this bothers me as much as it used to. There’s no hurry, after all. I have two whole years.

The ceremony itself was kind of interesting. There were three major political forces represented: the State, represented by the Sous-Prefet; the people, represented by the Mayor; and the Elites. That’s just what they called them: the Elites. They were represented by two, uh, Elites, one of whom was the president of the Elites’ Association. The spent a certain amount of time discussing the problems the principal highlighted for the school (one, no point of potable water on school grounds; two, a lack of math textbooks, particularly in 3e; three, an open campus, meaning students can "sneak in" during class without being considered "late"), and who could solve them and how. For example, the Elites were going to work on the potable water problem, since apparently the Chef of the village ("Sa Majesté", "His Majesty") had already bought a certain amount of pipe which was going to be used to fix something-or-other. Apparently this place was "mostly built by the elites", according to the Sous-Prefet — "when I first got here, I was surprised at how much had been built by the elites. For example, all the buildings in this school."

When I visited this place for my site visit a few months ago, I was struck by the quality of life that the volunteer here enjoyed. She hired neighborhood kids to come clean the floors. She didn’t have clearly-articulated duties, so she was basically free to do whatever she wanted. Her house was nice. She lived alone. Now I’m beginning to see a certain amount of the same thing. I only "have" to be at school three days a week, when I have classes; it’s true that other days I have to write lessons and do teacher-y things, but I can do that at home on my laptop. All my food is more-or-less fresh and more-or-less organic. It’s true that I spend a certain amount of time entertaining the neighborhood kids, but they’ll get tired of me eventually (or I’ll throw them out). The only thing that I really miss is running water.. Of course, in the back of my mind I know that there are good days and bad days, but I don’t really know what the difference is. Too much time being on display?


Rocher (Wednesday, 2010 September 15)

September 16th, 2010

This past weekend’s festivities included an afternoon "dinner" at Boris’s house, followed by a quick trek through the brush in the countryside near Boris’s house/farm. A couple German volunteers from Bafoussam came along. Some pictures:

We begin. Boris is in the lead, probably telling the chick, whose name is Ester ("With an R. Like the queen.") that this trip is for boys only and she should stay behind. Which is sexist, but unfortunately true due to the fact that her shoes were not applicable.

Of Ester I will only say that she is "of a type", and not a credit to her name.

One of the many striking views. These rocks all slant downward sharply. The white guy is Haness [sp?], a German volunteer. Ester is holding the hand of Cyril; both of them work with the German volunteers. You can see Ester’s shoes here.

But if you descend a little bit, you can take a pretty nice picture of everyone! Left to right: Cyril, Boris, Ester, Mandla, Haness. Don’t Mandla and Haness look exactly like people you almost know? I guess volunteers are "of a type" too.

Once we got to the rocher ("Rock," Haness explained helpfully), we descended in the fashion you see here. I thought Boris was joking up until we started doing it.


Fiches de progression (Tuesday, 2010 September 14)

September 14th, 2010

Finished my fiches de progression today (aka "schemes of work", aka "projets pedagogiques"). Brought them to the secretary’s office. She printed them out for me, after first arranging them to minimize wasted paper and fixing my various French mistakes. (Examples: pratique, not "practique". Exercice, not exercise. Projet, not project. Décembre with an accent. You get the idea.) I thought very little of the secretary at the lycée but she knows what’s up. She even breast-fed her baby, right there in the office. She also tried to speak English to me — but when I spoke back, she understood very little.

I’d like to upload my final results (but can’t just yet), even though they’re in French and basically worthless to you anyhow. I guess this is part of my scrapbooking effort, and who knows, maybe they’ll be useful to someone else. The highlights are the terminale and premiere ones, which rapidly become an exercise in educational fantasy because there just isn’t enough material worth teaching in the textbook they want to use. I decided to teach UML and their weird French system for analyzing systems ("Merise"), but they aren’t "practical", as the book says they are, they’re theory. That leaves me with a lot less lab work in premiere, so sure, they can learn to write GUIs! They can learn to do Web programming! Why not?


Arranger (Monday, 2010 September 13)

September 13th, 2010

Hmm, I’m getting close to needing to keep a list of what titles I’ve already used and which ones I haven’t.

Sorry I haven’t written much lately (6 days without a post??). I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the computer lab with some students, trying to do miscellaneous repairs/survey stuff. For example, we turned all the desks around, so the workstations face outward instead of inside, so that the instructor can look at all of them at a glance. Also, there was one computer that wasn’t booting — some problem with NTLDR — so I used this as an excuse to throw Ubuntu on it. Or, tried to anyhow.

So, get ready for a shock. These computers are Windows XP and they run with 128 MB of RAM. But trying to install Ubuntu off a USB stick requires at least 192 MB. Stock Ubuntu just died horribly (OOM’ing processes left and right) when trying to run "live". I didn’t even try to install it, things were just going so slow. So in the meantime I’ve been using my precious bandwidth to download other ISOs. XUbuntu installed (using the text-only installer) but it takes forever to start up, and it runs a bit like a dog. (As far as I can tell, the CPU is the bottleneck. These are P2/P3 class machines.) [Edit: today it ran fine.] So next I’ve been downloading LUbuntu (since Fluxbuntu is no longer an option?), something called Slitaz, something called Crunchbang, Elive, something called Absolute, and the newest version of Puppy Linux. The problem is trying to install on a USB 1.0 port takes forever.

Additionally, when I haven’t been at the lab ("my lab"), I’ve been working on my "scheme of work", the year-long plan of what I will be teaching when. The first one was really hard; after that they got easier. But it still entails reading through the textbooks we’re going to be using, which are not bereft of errors.


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