Free education is not free. Though in principle all children in Trinidad and Tobago have access to free schooling, not all of them can afford to take up the offer. Government already provides free textbooks, breakfast, lunch, and tuition, you might note, and it is up to parents to provide the other necessities for attending school. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to do so. As a parent myself I can tell you the cost of outfitting a child for school is high, even with all the above provided free. Each child has to have a book bag, for one. Textbooks might be free but stationery isn’t, and you might cast your own mind back to your days in uniform to remember what it was like to forget a copybook at home, or to not have a copybook at all. Even apart from other things like uniforms and shoes, there are also personal hygiene requirements like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, without which a child would be embarrassed to sit in class or might even be put out of class in some situations.
Recognising this, a group of young people has sought to help some Caribbean children seize free education. Melissa Enmore and Michelle Kandasammy have come up with The Backpack Project, a non-profit that aims to provide assistance to needy children by giving them a backpack full of stationery and personal care supplies once a year.
“The Backpack Project believes that education is a basic human right, not a privilege, and that health is a key factor determining the success of a child’s development,” the Project says in its Mission Statement. “The organisation will encourage the pursuit of formal education amongst underprivileged children in the Caribbean by providing basic school supplies and foster a healthy learning environment by providing personal supplies to backpack recipients. The Backpack Project hopes to leverage the resources of its sponsors, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders in a collaborative manner to further its objective of universal childhood education in the Caribbean.”
I find it personally heartening that the Project has not only been able to do its work in Guyana (where Enmore and Kandasammy are from) and Trinidad (where Kandasammy lives), but also extend it to Haiti and the Philippines in two special programmes. The Project sends filled backpacks to students, shipping them in a barrel where necessary. The students, aged five to 18, are identified by educators and through individual requests, and must agree to have their school careers tracked as long as they participate in the Project. So far the Project has given over 100 backpacks to Trinidadian and Guyanese students since it was formed. With the help of the public, they can give more.
The Backpack Project is in the middle of a collection drive, which ends August 18. Members of the public can give either cash or kind: sponsor a filled backpack, which costs about $515, or donate the items needed to fill one. (Cash donors can also give part of the cost of a filled backpack.) The Project still needs for this year: 60 pens, 40 pencil cases, 24 drawing books, 25 bottles of shampoo, 25 bottles of conditioner, 60 notebooks, brown paper, 50 tubes of toothpaste, and 50 toothbrushes.
Kandasammy said in the organisation’s December 2011 newsletter, “Nothing quite prepares you for the joy on the children’s faces when they see the bags with their names on [them]. The warm unexpected hugs received from the students of Rose Hill RC took me by surprise. After briefly talking to the students about their classes and their goals for the year… I walked out of Rose Hill RC more determined than ever that we must fulfil our promise to continue to sponsor all of our kids and to expand our programme.”
In this region so fraught with inequity, poverty and poor governance, it is easy to throw one’s hands up and surrender to the apathy of selfishness, doing for oneself and ignoring others’ problems. It is much harder to engage with those problems, to sit and consider how one can actually make a difference in the world in which we live, and particularly the country we inhabit. It is refreshing to encounter people who try to change things for the better. The Backpack Project is one ogranisation of a group of young people who are doing just that. Join them.
Of all the annoying things I read in today’s Trinidad Express (and there were several stories and ads that caused me ire, can I just say?), the most irritating was a call for the dismantling of the Government initiative to give laptop computers to all incoming secondary school students. Today’s story followed up on one written earlier this month detailing problems faced in implementing the initiative. In the first story, students said the computers were not being used in classrooms and were, in fact, being used to play games and record fights–and surf Facebook, a site that had supposedly been blocked on all the Government-issued laptops. Teachers said they hadn’t been properly trained and there was a big gap between the plan and its implementation.
The follow-up in today’s Express, the story that got me so mad, extensively quoted a parent identified as “Mrs Leacock”, whose views, presumably, represented the voice of parents. “The reality is that 12- and 13-year-olds are not responsible, nor prudent enough in their thinking to take care of, far less, use the laptop and harness its power to influence and access both good and bad at this tender age. We are being unfair in our expectations, and at the same time curtailing their opportunity to learn, by giving them another technological toy to entertain themselves with, and expecting better results in the long run,” she’s quoted as saying.
“A peep into any household whose child has their laptop at home would reveal the parent’s mantra of ‘turn that thing off’ with increased frequency, because now, in addition the Xbox, iPod, cellphone and TV to compete for our time and attention, our Form One children can now be mobile and walk into his bedroom/ bathroom and spend hours on the Internet or playing games, simply because they can, as it is their laptop.
“So in addition to more unsupervised use of this communication technology, we are fostering an increase in obesity. If before we had a hard time getting our children outside to play, this makes it all the more difficult, and the reality is that they have these laptops for a few years, so these bad habits are not going to change anytime soon.”
Well, Mrs Leacock, I beg to differ.
There might be great reasons to take those laptops away from the kids, but there are even better reasons to let them keep them. Here are some:
• Children don’t learn responsibility unless they’re given it. In other words, if they have nothing of value, how do they learn that they must take care of the things they have? I struggle with this on a daily basis with my 11-year-old (soon to be getting a laptop herself, once she passes her SEA. We’ll know by next week, God willing). Do I worry that she’ll mash up the laptop she gets, or lose it? Sorta. But I also recognise that the only way for her to learn to take care of things that are important is for her to TAKE CARE OF THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT. Parents ought to be teaching their children responsibility from small–doing chores, taking care of pets, taking responsibility for their books and toys and so on. Getting a $5,000 piece of fragile technology shouldn’t be the first time they have responsibility. But it is an excellent opportunity to teach them consequences. Hold them personally responsible for the condition of the laptops and enforce consequences for damage or misuse. Let’s see how many keys go missing then.
• Internet access isn’t a privilege anymore. It’s a necessity. I lived in the library when I was a student. Now, as a writer, I live online. Every time I write one of these useless blog posts, I spend time researching what I write, or finding pictures to illustrate the posts or videos to emphasise my points. Young people in schools have to do much the same thing. Education is increasingly project-centred, an approach that puts the onus on the child to find and present information. They could do this in libraries like I did thirty years ago, but why should they? Any teacher would tell you that they expect projects to be typed and neatly laid out–usually on a computer. (Can I get an “amen” from all the parents who ordinarily have to go to their offices to type and print projects for their kids?) To force children to depend on Internet access at schools or public libraries would be putting them at a disadvantage. Who would suffer most? The kids whose families already have computers and Internet access at home? Doubt it.
• Technology is part and parcel of the modern world. Giving students computers at an early stage in their development makes them more comfortable and familiar with the tools they will have to use anyway. It’s true not everybody’s going to be a writer or a scientist. But have you been to a mechanic lately? Even they use computers for their office management and diagnostics. Face it: computers are not going away and we need them more each day. Give a head start to children who otherwise would not be able to afford them.
• Computer-assisted learning can help certain kinds of learners. Chalk and talk doesn’t reach everybody. By nature computers are multi-media and therefore could be a great tool in teaching those who are more kinetic or visual learners. For more on the benefits of computers in classrooms, read this.
• Social networking is not the devil. Well, maybe this is a shaky point. I know they can be addictive, but sites such as Tumblr and Facebook are one of the ways the adult world now communicates. I once read a comment from someone who said that Facebook is today what a cell phone was ten years ago. Hands up if you have a cell phone now. I’m sure even Mrs Leacock has one. The idea is that they are a weapon in our communications arsenal and they can be useful. Teachers can and do use Facebook to post assignments and communicate with students. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.
• Who’s in charge of our children’s habits and lifestyle? Parents, or the computers? Mrs Leacock’s argument is a cop out. Until that child turns 18 he or she is your responsibility. Go back to my very first point. What did we say about taking care of the things that are important to you? Get the child off the computer. It’s your right and your job.
• As for the finding in the first story that teachers hadn’t been properly trained, this is eminently fixable. Train the teachers. When I teach I use my computers to teach (sometimes I use PowerPoint presentations, I find resources online for students, I show videos, I give quizzes, I make them do blogs). I also use my computer to communicate with students and do things like lesson plans. You don’t need a computer to teach. But it is a very useful tool. Show the teachers that and they might find it less onerous to be trained in using computers.
I’m not trying to oversimplify the problems inherent in giving students computers for use in schools. They are many and large. But we can and should solve them. Our children, no less than any others, deserve to reap the benefits of progress.
I’m tired but happy today because The Allen Prize for Young Writers’ Term II Seminar was held yesterday and it was a success. Tired=lots of planning work and running around, then hosting and stage managing yesterday with the help of lots of people–my brother Dennis, my daughters, Rhoda, Brian. Happy because (although our preregistration drive netted us more than 50 students the actual turnout was, once again, lower than expected) we had a small but keen audience.
Part of the audience.
The speakers were marvelous. Nicholas Laughlin talked about the possibilities of creative non-fiction.
Nicholas Laughlin at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011
Monique Roffey spoke about her life as a writer, starting as a wall-scrawling toddler, up to her short listing for the Orange Prize in 2011.
Monique Roffey at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011
And Muhammad Muwakil performed his spoken word magic before giving a talk on writing.
Muhammad Muwakil at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011
Gillian Moor was our guest performer.
Gillian Moor at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011
It was an exciting morning. Now on to the Awards Ceremony in May, and the next seminar–in Tobago!–in June.
My younger daughter just sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). The exam, which used to be called the Common Entrance, is the be all and end all of every Trinidadian and Tobagonian child’s primary school career. All seven years of primary school lead up to SEA; it determines what secondary school you’ll attend, and by default, if you succeed in school or not.
That’s a pretty harsh and extreme position, you might say. Well, it’s not. While anybody can succeed in life given the right tools and encouragement, the average secondary school child in this country isn’t given either. Most go through the system like a dose of salts, as one aspiring education minister unfortunately said on the hustings during the last election. This year about 17,000 students sat the exam, which starts at 9 am and ends at 12.30 pm and covers English grammar, creative writing and mathematics. Of those thousands, about two or three thousand will end up in schools their parents consider “good”–either the denominational schools that by and large top the secondary school scholarship lists every year, or a well regarded government school, of which there are a handful. Each of these schools takes in about 120-150 students, tops. What happens to the rest of students?
The government some years ago instituted a rule that no child would fail the SEA outright. Instead, the lowest scoring pupils who sat the exam would either return to primary school for another–and another, and another, if necessary–chance to sit it. Those who aged out would go on to government secondary schools with remedial curricula. Those who sat and passed with better scores would go to mainstream or tech/voc government schools. The government also paid for places for students in private secondary schools. All children now go to secondary school. But it remains an unfortunate truth that the majority of those innocents who sat SEA Tuesday will not have the secondary schooling they deserve.
Overcrowded classes, understaffed schools, a curriculum that does not seem to meet their needs, and lack of parental input conspire to leave many of our youths still at sea when they go to secondary school.
As for my child, The Lady, I hope she passes for my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School. If she doesn’t, I will send her to whatever school she passes for, support, guide and love her and hope for the best. Your schooling is not the sum of your education.
But maybe I get ahead of myself. The results don’t come out for another three months, so she has a nice break from academia–she had lessons before and after school, Saturdays and all through the holidays. She gets a break from hours of homework every single night and the horrible pressure of knowing this was the biggest exam she has ever had to do in her nearly 11 years. And I get to sleep late again. Until she starts Form One, anyway.
My daughter Miss Thing is trying to go to the US to study for a baccalaureate at the UWC College in New Mexico. It’s an incredible opportunity: she would get to meet students from all over the world, undertake a rigorous academic programme, hike, ski, do community service and all kinds of other good stuff. The goals of the UWC are to increase sustainability and world peace by teaching young people from diverse parts of the world to think of the world as one world, with one goal–making that one world a better place.
Miss Thing was one of only six T&T students who were chosen by the local committee of the UWC to attend these colleges worldwide. Other students got to go to Wales, Costa Rica, Canada, Hong Kong… Same curriculum but different local experiences. In Hong Kong you make field trips to Tibet, for example; in New Mexico, you go to Mexico. Some of the places, including the US one, came with a partial scholarship.
The only teeny, tiny flaw in this grand plan is that you still need a US visa to attend the US college. And your getting a US visa is contingent on the mood of the interviewer at the Embassy when you get to his window. I’m not a big fan of the US, and my love of the Embassy in POS … Let’s not go there. Needless to say, this has not been a fun experience. Hopefully on our next attempt we bring all the documentary evidence they require to know that 1) we’ll pay our part and 2) she’ll come back to Trinidad & Tobago when she’s through. The interviewer did not even glance at the letter from UWC-TT saying they were paying part of the cost. All he wanted to know was that my bank balance (no other financial statement would do, just a BANK statement) showed that I had enough cash to cover the fees.
This experience once again reminds me why people have the relationship they do with the US and with US Embassies worldwide. Why can’t the officers there treat the citizens of the countries–in which those officers are guests–with humanity, dignity and respect? Lest you think I’m alone in my grouse, check out this video.