Tag Archives: nys

America As An Inchworm

an inchworm on leaves

America needs a cultural and economic shift.  We all know that America has been having some economic troubles recently, but a quick article up on Salon.com recently painted a nice picture of what they call an economic collapse of our empire.  Sharing this link with a friend of mine prompted a conversation regarding what America should do to prevent this collapse.

My response is a return to trade skills.  All ecosystems work in pendulum swings between states of inequality to generate a (dynamic) balance, and the American economy is no different, especially now that it is arguably in its most unified state since founding.  We are on the side of the swing that is economic decline due to overgrowth in one sector, services, and we need to promote a return to other sectors in order to keep the pendulum moving back towardseconomicrecovery.

The problem with these statements is that oftentimes they invoke negative imagery of sweatshop labor, families unable to pay their bills, etc.  Yet this not need be the case.  Instead, consider America’s economic-distribution curve like an inchworm making it’s way along, where the head moves forward while the tail catches up.  The head is the economic elite, the tail is the rest.  The inchworm moves forward, it’s just that the elite get to achieve the results first.  We all talk about the decline of the middle class, but in reality its not a decline at all, many of them have just caught up with the head, they have succeeded.  The problem is that no matter the case, the head will always be in front of the tail, which is why we will always have a classed economy.

The problem with the inchworm is that the model only works when the inchworm has somewhere to go.  America has no direction right now.  Currently, society as a whole is focused on fighting wars, changing health care, promoting or banning gay marriage, banning immigrants, prepping for eco-energy and promoting and fighting climate change, all at the same time (at least, that’s the news headlines summation of America).  It’s an inchworm reared up on it’s hind legs, scouting out the terrain frantically, with no direction.  America needs to shift it’s focus to reassessing it’s own economic initiatives.

I am not talking about at the government level, but instead at the cultural level.  The friend that prompted this discussion remarked, about Utah’s potentially making the 12th grade voluntary, that it would be a good thing if they also put a focus on technical education.  Of course, this will probably not be the case, as in times like these budget cuts don’t often come with compromises of that sort, but it’s a point with which I agree.

America’s cultural shift needs to be away from this notion that everybody needs to go to college.  College is becoming less about education, and more about a social right-of-passage for many.  However, it has left one positive side-affect: American’s have demonstrated an increasing willingness to put off their lives for another two to four years before entering the work force.  This is our leverage for initiating change.

Take those two to four years and focus them on producing more specific workers.  Beef up high school so that it provides an extremely good environment for producing critical thinkers who also have general knowledge from which to derive their understanding of the patterns of the world.  Then provide these students with more than the three opportunities we have now: college, military or a crappy job.  Bring back technical education, place it post-secondary school and make it culturally praise-worthy, just like that four year degree!

With this accomplished, we need not return to the manufacturing and trades of old (though there will always be a need for good, national infrastructure support individuals).  There are plenty of new markets available that America can exploit, from green energy to battery technology (of which we used to be a leader, but no more), to computer programming.  In fact, regarding programming, the CEO of Zoho talks of snagging people right out of high school and training them to be programmers.  It’s a return to the apprenticeship model that has always been a lifeline to economies; one of the first structured means of passing along technical information from one generation to the next.

It’s a model I see at work here in Kenya.  The students that complete the NYS program and become tradespeople are considered the best.  I run into individuals randomly around Kenya who have completed NYS themselves and are proud of the lives they have created and attribute their success to the NYS program.

Many people feel that an education means a four year degree.  Yet I constantly meet people who tell me that they went to college, but don’t remember half of what they learned.  Why are we promoting such a wasteful system?  We need to readjust our cultural values away from the perception that a college-degree is necessary, and towards the perception that technical trade skills and prepping individuals to be immediately productive in the economy are to be admired and respected.  With this we can ensure the tail catches up with the head and the inchworm can move along his merry way.

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Whistle While You Work

I am a whistler. Anyone who has been around me for more than say, five minutes, knows that I am a whistler (much to their annoyance or amusement or both I am not sure). I like to whistle in my free time, when I am alone, when I have friends around, when I am walking to work, when I am programming. Heck, I just like to whistle.

That is why it has been my great pleasure to discover that students at NYS love to whistle as well. I hear them whistling when walking, I hear them whistling when working. Some of them will even whistle in class if I start to do so. At some points, I have been whistling and from across the field a student will pick up on it and continue whistling in tune with my own whistling! It’s amazing!

My life is one big, happy, whistle-fest!

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A New Schedule

I think in an entry a while back I may have informed my readers that one of my primary reasons for sticking with Peace Corps has always been that each and every day brings about a chance for something totally random to happen. Last week, my life took one of those unexpected random turns, and now that the spinning has stopped and I am starting to see straight again, I thought I would write about. Apparently, I am now teaching a full Information and Communication Technology Technician course here at NYS.

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Teaching Small, Thinking Big

It is without a doubt that I am teaching my students ICT in a way that no syllabus in Kenya would have them learn. This is mostly because for the amount of time I see my students (2 hours per class per week), if I taught based on any syllabus I have seen they would learn specific aspects of computing that would never help them. What good is knowing how to make something bold if you can’t even turn the computer on in the first place? My whole goal is to make my students comfortable with computers overall, so that they might someday purchase their own. It helps that they are not examined at the end of the semester and they know full well they aren’t even getting a certificate for work they do in my class (it’s just how the situation is run here) because it means I have a little more freedom in how I teach and they have no expectations. It’s taken a while, but I think my students are starting to trust me that I am really trying to teach them, even if what I am teaching doesn’t match up with pieces of paper they are slipped from friends on the outside who are taking the notorious, “Kenyan Computer Packages,” courses widely available to anyone with 3,000 shillings and a week of time.

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Linux: Ubuntu In My Lab

This entry is the third in a series covering GNU/Linux, an Operating System consisting of the Linux Kernel and applications from the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community, with an emphasis on its connections to the developing world. These articles assume at least a moderate understanding of the Linux and FOSS communities. For more information regarding these, I would direct interested parties to Linux.org as well as the Free Software Foundation and finally, for the truly interested, the GNU Manifesto. With all of this knowledge now in hand, I hope you enjoy the series. If you have not already done so, I suggest you go ahead and read the first and second posts in the series: Linux: Not Ready for the Big Time and Linux: It’s Everywhere and Nowhere.

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Never A Holiday Really, Except This Time

Most all education institutes in Kenya follow a three on, one off, schedule for their school year. This simply means we have three months of teaching, followed by one month of holiday. Of course, NYSTC is slightly different from every other institution in that though we follow the 3/1 pattern, our year starts in May, not January, but that’s just trivia, and not really a major impact on my life. For this past year in Kenya, there has always been some work to get done during my month, “off,” from teaching, which has prevented me from actually going on a single holiday. Believe it or not, despite all my adventures around Kenya, which I am lucky to have, none of them have been true vacations, they have always been, “work related.” That’s about to change 🙂 Continue reading

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Ars Politico Africanae: National Youth Service Mombasa

Andy, if you read this, (or any other L atin nerds for that matter), feel free to correct the title.

With that out of the way, recently we have had some political developments in my life here in Kenya, both at the local level and at the nationwide level. I thought I would share them with you. I have split the post into two parts. Part one will cover recent developments at NYS, and part two will cover the release of the draft constitution here in Kenya. Continue reading

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My Job is To Think

Technically, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am assigned to the National Youth Services Technical College outside of Mombasa.  Here I am a teacher, specifically teaching an Introduction to Computer Literacy course for the Craft 1 students, all 130 some-odd of them.  However, this only occupies about 12 hours of my week, maybe 14 if you include preparation time, but considering I only have to prepare one lesson a week, prep time is minimal.  At first I thought I could do more preparation time, create more engaging lessons, but I am slowly learning that my students only in fact have two hours a week in and out of class to think about computers, and those two hours are actually in class.  If you did the math correctly, you discovered my students have no time to think about computers outside of class, a point which has been verified from many sources at all levels of this school.  It’s sad, and it also means that even if I did extra prep, it would benefit nobody as far as I can tell. Continue reading

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The difference a laugh can make

Such an inspirational subject, eh?  I wrote that because I felt that “The difference a threat can make,” sounded far too intimidating and non-peace corps like and I am always trying to be oh so peace corps like…  But let’s get serious and let me be honest with you: with it only being halfway through my third week teaching this semester, I will glady predict it is going to be my best yet!  Why?  Well, I feel the indirect reason is that principal has informed all the students that my class will now be examined.  Who knew.  Not me!  At least not when he told the entire assembly of students, but that’s fine.  It just kicked me into high gear and got me prepping as a teacher.

The end result?  I don’t know, but for some strange reason I am now having full attendance, which I now feel obligated to call, as well as somewhat punctual students.  For Kenyans, the fact that even ONE of my students arrives BEFORE class is amazing.  Like, pants-peeing amazing.  The fact that I have whole majorities of classes showing before class starts almost causes anuerisms.  On top of that, they all respect my rule of, “You must have a pen and notebook in front of you.  I don’t care if you use it, I don’t care if you sleep on it, I don’t care if it just sits there unopened the entire time, it must be in front of you.”

On top of all this, they ask questions.  And when I answer them, if they don’t understand the answer, they ask again!  This is a huge improvement.  I gave them a test today, and asked them in as reassuring a manner as possible, how can I make this test better.  They said my questions were too long and they did not know what was expected of them.  This is a perfectly legitimate concern considering they have a grasp of english roughly consistent with an 8th grader in america.  It’s just not their primary language, and I need to know how to utilize it so that they understand me.  Last semester, if I had asked them to critique something I had done, they would have stayed quiet and I would never have known something so simple was causing so much distress.

Finally, they laugh at me.  They laugh at my jokes.  They laugh at my energy in class.  They never see one of their kenyan teachers energetically moving around the room telling people to treat their computer mice nicely like a lady (don’t ask…).  It’s different; I am different, and either they are getting used to me, or to being first years, I don’t know, but they laugh when they should.  And I don’t treat them like children, untrustworthy children like some of my peers say I should.  How are we ever going to teach trust here if a teacher cannot trust his students.  Connecticut College drilled into me the importance of its Honor Code, and I saw what an amazing academic environment springs up around such inherent trust placed in individuals.  But how can a student here ever feel trusted if the teachers call them liars and thieves blatantly to their faces.  Maybe I am naive on this point, but I have a lot of work on my plate, and if I don’t start trusting my students, it’s going to make life much more unecessarily difficult.  So they have my trust.

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My NYS Teaching Update

My last post, I kindly offered to split into two because I knew that both portions were going to be large.  And then, as sometimes happens, I got distracted by Peace Corps life (mostly reading actually….) and never got around to updating you on what’s been going on at my primary project, NYS Mombasa.

Well, it’s almost all good news actually!!  I know, shocking isn’t it!  I was just as shocked when this ball started rolling as well.  So let’s begin with me getting back from Nairobi.  I had just gotten back sunday night when on monday morning principal talked to me and informed me that we would be moving the computer lab that morning and I would be teaching starting that week.  I believe this was on May 15th or something.  Hold on, let me look at a calendar… May 11th.  So on May 11th, we moved the computers into the new, shiny computer lab.  it’s big!  The ceiling isn’t falling down!  There is minimal dust!  And it even has an office, and space for 24 computers!  And that’s not even cramming.  I could cram another 12 in if I really wanted to!

We moved all the machines, which were thankfully just imaged, and then I began what other would consider boring, but I found one of the most exciting things i have done here:  i began setting up the network!  And dual booting the machines, so now each machine runs Windows XP and Ubuntu 8.10.  They are all networked, and networked to a printer, which the teachers are loving, because before they would have to go to a special single computer to print.  I also got a rudimentary server running, but that hasn’t seen much work since install.  Not enough time.

Why?  Because I am now working 11 hour days in this lab.  I get in at 7am and do about an hour of maintenance before the walk ins start happening.  I am still on a 6 class a week schedule, which is only 12 hours of actual, official teaching, but on top of that I also have two scheduled classes for teachers, and then a policy of “If the door is open, use the computers.”  Foot traffic has exploded from the people who want me to “give them deep knowledge of computer,” to people who want me to teach them AutoCAD (which, sadly, I cannot do aside from finding and making available free CAD software).  I am also running open lab from 4pm – 6pm where I specifically stay to answer any questions people have.  Needless to say, I have been very busy at site since May 11th.  Or was it the 18th?  I forget.  Peace Corps time.

I regret to inform though that the new crop of students has not really affected the teaching experience as related last semester.  These are completely fresh students, whereas before they were end-of-first-year students who had had computer, but nobody told me, not even them when I asked them.  I was hoping that maybe with completely fresh students I could get off on a better footing, so we went outside for all first classes and just talked about ICT.  I am trying really hard to slow my speech, speak simpler english, use kiswahili, but still same results: nobody talks, the blank stares, everything.

I have thus adjusted my curriculum and my own expectations.  Upon reviewing the Internataionl Computer Drivers License (ICDL) syllabus, and realizing it takes 150 hours to complete, whereas I have only 20 hours with them, I have come to the conclusion that teaching to this spec would be impossible.  Thus, I just go slowly by slowly (a kenyan english-ism) and try to be practical, but while trying as much as possible to still teach concepts over specifics.  For example, at the login screen, I try to explain the simple concept of username and password, and how they are very common in all of computing, instead of just saying click here and type this.  But on the other end of the spectrum I have actually dropped the class on hardware vs. software, etc.  It’s just not practical enough to keep them interested.  I don’t quite know how or when I will explain what the Operating System is, but I feel like when I tell them to switch to Ubunutu for the first time, it might be appropriate.

I have also come to the conclusion that I am just not a good “Intro to Computer,” teacher for NYS.  I am coming to terms with this fact: it just does not itnerest me overly so.  I do wish NYS would finish with creating their new curriculum and send all the real computer teachers back to the camps, so that the volunteers could go back to their inital goal which is new-idea generation, as I understand it.  I do like teaching the teachers: they are attentive, seem to be taking notes, and in general seem to appreciate the potential impacts computers can bring to their lives.  And the open lab sessions bring the students who are eager to learn about comoputers, so that can be a very rewarding time as well.

I will end with a list of pieces of tech I am either using, are intrigued in and whatnot, as well as some projects.  I will also try to put up links where appropriate.

  • I plan on using Ubuntu’s apt-cacher to make updating the ubunutu side of the computers far easier.  It allows me to only download something once and then it distributes it to all of the other computers.  It is not working properly at the moment, and I have not come upon a definite reason why not.  I may end up setting up my own repository instead.
  • For free CAD software, I plan on using the Community Edition of qCAD.  It is open source and available in most major Linux Distrobution repositories.  However, I have not fully looked into the best way to compile it for windows.  Also, one of the teachers, Njau (who is loving linux at the moment), needs to sit down and learn it because he knows CAD software and I don’t.
  • I am currently working on a set of scripts that snag full-content RSS feeds from the net, and then generate a “Daily Newspaper” style website on a completlely local server.  I feel this is the best way to provide daily updated information to the teachers, in a networked environment.  By leveraging the standard formatting of RSS, I am hoping to minimize development times of the software, as well as reduce overall size, letting me focus on making it user friendly.
  • Hopefully soon I will be able to sit down with the Italc suite of tools which will allow for an open source means of screen watching and remote-control, though it will also allow for on screen demonstrations to all the computers at once I am hoping, which is the next best thing to me having a projector. 
  • I want to also set up a local authentication and storage server so that all the students can get a networked space to store work and whatnot.  Right now my data policy is, “If it’s on the computer when I image it, sorry.  I will try to give 48 hours before I image a machine.”
  • For imaging, I ended up using PING.  It is small, lightweight, comes with heaps of other low-level disk tools, and just worked when clonezilla wasn’t.  Not to say clonezilla is bad in anyway, and there seems to be a lot of development effort going on there, but it just did not work.
  • I need to start writing up tutorials for basic computer use.  I am just currently torn between writing it up for ubunutu or windows.  I still don’t know if I should switch to Ubunutu, just for practicalities sake.  I think I will do a post on that later.

Ok, this post is certainly long enough.  I hope you have all enjoyed it.  I have been busy, and I am hoping to stay that way until august, when school goes on holiday, and I am sure I will need one too!

Til next time, cheers!

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