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The Shiniest Toy

by Timothy Falconer, Waveplace president

Very likely if you're reading this, you love shiny new toys. Especially intriguing are the clever ones: the iPhone's, Wii's, and XO laptops. Handling a new inspired design is a little slice of Christmas morning, a reminder of a time when gadget play was all that mattered.

The XO is quite an eye-catcher. One look and you know it's something to pick up and explore. Like so many toys that make our daily grind a bit better ... Bluetooth headsets, touchscreen remotes, talking GPS nav ... the XO excites our imagination with its swivel screen, mesh networking, and low low cost.

But here's the thing: it's just a box. Through all the press and praise and endless talk, the XO is merely a wrapper around the real Christmas present. Contained within its rugged plastic case, you'll find the means to make your own toys. Forget the distractions we've come to crave, this little machine holds the power to fundamentally change how we think and learn.

But only if we unwrap the surprise inside, the crown jewel of the XO laptop: Squeak Etoys. As software pioneer Alan Kay has said, "The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas." Etoys lets you play "idea music" with an unexpected grace. It helps you visualize and explore abstract ideas, which makes the lesson learnable. With Etoys, you make models as real as Rubik's cubes, then tinker with them till new truths are found.

Waveplace teaches how to teach this. Just as music is best learned while working closely with a music teacher, the magic of Etoys comes across best while working with an enthusiastic mentor. Waveplace trains mentors to encourage purposeful play, to engage children in their own learning, to guide their discoveries. This transforming magic, what we call "spark", is the shiniest toy of all.

Electronic Paper for Powerful Ideas

by Dr. Alan Kay, president of Viewpoints Research Institute

Children are set up by nature to learn the world around them by watching adult activity and playing imitation games. Dewey pointed out that this is difficult in today's developed cultures because many important adult activities are opaque or not found in every home.

Montessori thought that children's urge to learn the world by immersion and play could be powerfully used for twentieth-century learning if the children were placed into twentieth-century environments and given toys that embodied twentieth-century ideas. One of her special insights was that a main task of early education was to reshape the ordinary common sense that every child picks up into the "uncommon sense" that is needed as the foundation for many modern ideas, especially those in science.

There are books about how to learn these ideas in the thousands of free libraries in the United States. But if you haven't learned the discernment to use libraries and don't have a hint of what you are missing, you have to be a pretty special type to find a way into these ideas by yourself. The Internet is now starting to bring the libraries of powerful ideas into the home, but most people will still need the discernment and the hints to provide the motivation for exploring ideas that require some effort to learn.

The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned than any book. This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can.

We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. We have written examples of this new literature which are published on the Internet for children and adults to "read" and play with. Readers can also become writers, because "authoring is always on".

(click here to learn more about Squeak Etoys)

Report From Our St John and Haiti Pilots

by William Stelzer, Waveplace chief mentor

For the past two months my brain has been in two different places, only a few hundred miles apart on a map of the Caribbean, but worlds apart in challenges faced. On St. John we are now six weeks into our pilot. Learning most of the XO is almost effortless for the kids. Chat, Write, Record, Journal, and Browse took me all of about fifteen minutes to get a few kids started, then I just sat back and watched the newfound knowledge spread like wildfire. Learning Etoys is more like jumping into the deep end of the pool, but the kids are making amazing progress in a very short time.

Our experiences in St John became especially valuable for our Haiti pilot. I flew into Port au Prince last week, this time not to show the laptop, but now to train mentors and film kids learning how to use their XOs. It was, as you can imagine, pretty cool. In the first few days I worked with Emile, our primary mentor in Haiti, and the other teachers at the school, teaching them the basics of the XO and Etoys.

The next day we handed out seventeen XOs to students in the John Branchizio School (including Jessie, the little girl in the first video). Once I started shooting and Emile began teaching the introductory lesson, everyone was on their own, especially as I don't speak French or Creole. It was amazing watching the kids boot up their laptops and name them, knowing that for most of them, this was the first time they'd even seen a computer. It was also quite inspiring watching the adults working with the kids, themselves also with very limited computer experience.

I would definitely like to thank the heroic efforts of Tim as well as all of you who donated your laptops for the Haiti pilot. I hope that it is a thrilling experience knowing that your laptop is now in the hands of the very first wave of children to help lead Haiti to a brighter future.

Bringing Education to Life

by Jan Kinder, Waveplace vice president

As I watch the youth of today, I'm reminded of growing up in the 60's. Our daily schedules were not hectic and complicated. We started school in kindergarten and before that, play was our classroom. We had imaginative time to expand our minds and develop our creativity, and express our individuality. Our education system, for the most part, supported the 'teachers taught, and students listened and learned' model.

One of my teachers however did not conform to that model and has stood out in my mind for over 35 years and influenced my teaching of children. Ms. Keilty, my Latin teacher for three years was magical. She made a dead language come to life through her creative and unorthodox teaching style. She did not teach through rote learning. She got us to think and not just recite back what she taught. We acted out stories with props and music, and even wore togas. She created a Roman forum style classroom. We were being transported to a place where learning was fun, alive, and full of discovery.

Years later I was drawn to learn the Orff Schulwerk approach to music education, which teaches that concepts and skills are built through active involvement, and not through structured methodology. It has been proven to me that play-oriented and self-discovery education are vital components in today's educational forum.

Waveplace champions approaches and tools that allow education to come to life. The XO laptop and Squeak Etoys software engages children and encourages them to think independently. It allows a child's untapped creativity to emerge. It let's them share that creativity and individuality around the globe.

Many of our native children know only the Caribbean and with this comes limitations. Introducing them to other children from around the world, sharing their stories and culture, will be a real experience for them. The globe will be much more than a map. The children at our St John pilot have been excited and enthusiastic since day one. Each day their world opens to new possibilities both within themselves and beyond.

I'm sure Ms. Keilty would have loved it.

Immokalee Means Home

by Ted Coiné, founder of Naples Social Action

Immokalee, Florida, is one of the poorest towns in the United States. Actually, before moving to nearby Naples, I had never seen the likes north of Mexico. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Immokalee is appalling. And to think that it's only a forty-minute drive from the most affluent small city in America. You can see why my wife and I want to do our part to help.

Over eighty percent of the residents of Immokalee are immigrants, many illegal. Half of them are migrant farm workers, who make only $3.50 a day. Due to an exception in the federal minimum wage guidelines for farm workers, that's legal. And it is illegal for farm workers to form unions.

It gets better: just about a month ago, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the FBI broke up a slavery ring - the seventh such group in the past few years. These were field hands kept against their will in the back of a truck, let out only to pick tomatoes, kept under lock and key under the threat of death.

Life for children isn't all that promising. Half of the children drop out before graduating high school. Half! The other half don't have it that good, either. Literally from birth, these children are condemned to the prison of low expectations. If they can keep their kids out of gangs and prepare them for a low-wage trade before the girls get pregnant, educators consider themselves successful.

As with other Waveplace areas, Immokalee is cursed by its economy: the low-paying blight of tourism, the slightly better wages of construction, and the single worst-paying sector of the US economy, agriculture. If Immokalee's children want to make something of themselves, they have to leave their hometown, parents, neighbors, siblings, and friends behind. There are no job opportunities for the college-educated in this town.

Immokalee may be land-locked, but it is every bit an economic island. And as such, its children need our help. With XO laptops and guidance from Waveplace mentors, the children of Immokalee may get the same chance that our middle-class daughters do in Naples. Maybe some will even return after college to improve Immokalee, an America-Indian word meaning "Our Home."

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Waveplace in Haiti


Call For Mentors


Waveplace on NPR