As we continue to make strides to incorporate intuitive and practical technological solutions such as electronic tablets into Aula Mágica classrooms, the buzz around our program has only grown louder. Most recently we were asked to be the subject of an in-depth article to be hosted on global technology solutions leader, CISCO’s Newsroom page thanks to a CISCO writer with previous ties to Guatemala catching a glimpse of our previous feature in the local REVUE Magazine. Our publicity up to date has occurred almost entirely organically thanks to the word of mouth recommendations by our fantastic supporters and other moments of divine intervention like these. To check out the article featured on the Cisco Newsroom site, click here!
We hope to fully equip all of our existing rural classrooms with a tablet, portable Bluetooth speaker and solar charging apparatus in time for the start of the 2016 school year. In addition, we are also currently developing an accompanying mobile application to help enhance our existing curriculum and engage our students in new and creative ways. These technological solutions will help us save time and money as we expand while also allowing us to more effectively measure and record the amount of progress being achieved in Magic Classrooms everywhere. With that said, we need the help and support of creative tech-minded leaders like CISCO and individuals like you to help support us as we continue to expand into this new frontier.
Please share, share, share our work with your friends and family and also consider making a donation today. Your donation would help bring us closer to achieving our goal of fully-equipping all rural Magic Classrooms with cunning edge solutionsin time for the fast-approaching 2016 school year. We are on the precipice of something very exciting with a chance to truly change the foundation of rural education in Guatemala and beyond. How cool would it be to be a part of that?
This past April, USAID and the Guatemalan Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) hosted a conference designed to bring leading educators from both the government and non-government sector to present and share innovating classroom reading techniques. Over the last several months our program has gone through several evolutions as we have tried to listen to our facilitator’s feedback and strengthen our impact in the classroom and perhaps unsurprisingly, daily reading has since become a core pillar of ours. We have worked hard to identify a list of 10 children’s book titles and are currently developing 50 accompanying activities to be included in each and every one of our classrooms all so that children in rural communities can fall in love with reading and begin to imagine new worlds much different from their own.
Given our abundance of original material and practical reading techniques we felt that Aula Mágica was more than worthy to not only attend the conference, but to also present. Shortly after submitting a proposal to lead a 75 minute workshop, we were elated to learn that our proposal had been one of the first to be accepted and that we would were given the first timeslot of the event! Shortly thereafter Lucy, Lola, Rosa María and myself began our preparation, feeling more than a little unsure about what to expect.
While the coordination on behalf of MINEDUC leading up to the conference left a lot to be desired, upon arriving to the Hotel Conquistador in Guatemala City we were completely blown away by the sheer quantity of people in attendance - an estimated 300 in total, all of them experts in early childhood education. While we were initially admittedly nervous, the wonderful even staff spoiled and pampered us from the moment we walked in the door, making sure that we received our fancy presenter’s badges and morning coffee.
Shortly after the event inauguration, we were off to prepare our beautiful and ample salon for its transformation into a Magic Classroom. I’ll be the first to admit that the bright lights and elegant setup had me beaming like a proud parent after watching their child hit a home run in their first little league game; we hadn’t even begun our presentation yet, but I couldn’t help but feel like we had already taken an important leap in our organization’s history. All the lights aside, things were looking quite bright that Wednesday morning.
Needless to say, once the camera started rolling, Lucy, Lola and Rosa María did a terrific job getting our model classroom off to a great start, incorporating the audience from the get-go and refusing the opportunity to simply present another boring PowerPoint presentation. Even though we were competing against five other presentations in our time slot, we were happy to see that our salon was mostly full and our audience very engaged. Once our initial 20 copies of a sample teacher’s guide had been distributed a line of program directors, teachers, academics and other experts quickly formed to ask for more information and congratulate us on our work. Emails, handshakes and pats on the back were all exchanged at a frantic pace, but over the course of the two day conference we quickly found ourselves all becoming friends.
While it proved difficult to include all the nuts and bolts that go into making our program so special in just 75 minutes, we were happy to sit down and share our organizations’ story with event organizers to be included in a future publication to be shared amongst all attendees and other industry leaders. Ultimately, we all felt more than proud of our showing and walked away feeling that Aula Mágica had without a doubt left its mark on this spectacular event. It goes without saying that we’re already starting to plan for next year.
If you are interested in supporting the growth of our reading program or any other aspect of our work, please consider making a donation today. With just 10 dollars you can bring a book to a rural classroom and give children the opportunity to learn and imagine in new ways!
[This is an advance copy of an article to be published in the Revue magazine]
The Magical Classroom
By Linda Conard
Every morning, teens walk mountain roads in rural Guatemala carrying magic in their backpacks. When they reach their destinations—community centers, churches, homes—they’re greeted by excited preschoolers who scramble into a circle, eager for the fun to begin. The teens pull from their backpacks small tablet computers loaded with music, lessons and laughter. When they tap “play,” the room fills with the voices of a teacher and his students magically transforming these makeshift classrooms into centers for success.
Children in isolated Guatemalan villages have no preschool teachers and experience little socialization. Up to 40 percent fail the first grade, and either repeat or simply drop out. The nonprofit group Let’s Be Ready developed "Aula Mágica” (Magical Classroom) to bring vital preschool education to these remote regions through audio lessons downloaded onto tablet computers. The program applies Montessori and Creative Curriculum principles to prepare 5 and 6 year olds with the basic knowledge they need to succeed in the first grade, turning that 40 percent failure rate into a 95 percent rate of success.
Aula Mágica also tackles another critical problem in remote regions: smart teens without jobs. With no direct access to secondary school and few job prospects, local teens can’t serve as certified teachers, but they can lead Aula Mágica classes as education promoters, and even earn enough money to complete secondary school and become teachers.
“If we tried to get more certified preschool teachers to rural areas, it would take decades,” says program director Michael Estill. “But with Aula Mágica, in just a few years for every community in Guatemala could have access to a program for preschool preparation.”
Promoters ages 16 and up are selected for their enthusiasm, creativity, literacy and interest in improving their community. They take full responsibility for everything in the classroom, from working with students and parents, arranging for learning spaces, and providing ongoing feedback about the program materials. They also play a dynamic role in the classroom, pausing the audio program every few minutes to engage the children in activities reinforcing each lesson.
“The kids run around flying like airplanes; they go out to find different fruits or colors. They participate,” says Fred Zambroski, Aula Mágica creator and founder of Let’s Be Ready. By the end of the year, the children have the basic knowledge and classroom experience they need to succeed in first grade.
Three Guatemalan volunteers create the magic behind Aula Mágica. Quirio Ixtamer Perez, a special needs teacher, radio personality, actor and clown, records all of the lessons, and he, his wife, and their three children play all the parts. Actress, artist and musician Rosa Maria Ruiz Porras writes all lesson scripts. And schoolteacher Lucy Diaz trains the promoters, develops materials, and ensures that all both the lessons and activity guide address core competencies and link with Guatemala’s national curriculum.
In 2015, Aula Mágica will compete in the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE competition, which promotes using tablet technology to “empower children to take control of their own learning,” according to the XPRIZE website. Zambroski and Estill hope to recruit Guatemalan technology experts to lead their tech team.
“Basically, we’re looking at making this an open-source program that can be easily replicated,” says Estill. “Something that could expand to as many people as want to use it,” Zambroski adds. “It’s an organic, constantly changing curriculum. The promoters in the field tell us what works and what doesn’t, and create new ideas for it. It’s quite a mental shift.”
Begun as a small 2014 pilot in San Pedro la Laguna, the Aula Mágica has rapidly expanded to 18 rural Guatemalan communities and is now available only in Spanish but is being translated into Mayan languages. Several libraries and groups in Guatemala and Mexico have expressed interest in adopting it, and Zambroski couldn’t be happier. “I’m 70 years old,” he says, “and I hope to see this become international and grow in hundreds of places in my lifetime.”
To learn more about Aula Mágica, go tohttp://www.globalgiving.org/projects/interactive-audio-preschool-for-rural-guatemala-youth/ or do a search at GlobalGiving.com. For more information, contact Michael Estill (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This past week Aula Mágica wrapped up its annual teacher training program held high up in the mountains of Huehuetenango in anticipation for the upcoming school year. Lola (our program coordinator), Lucy (our teacher trainer), and myself (carrier of heavy things) were joined on Sunday, February 15th by a total of seven participants hailing from very different and distant locations eager to take in a week of fun and activity.
We were joined by our standout participant from last year’s session, Astrid from San Juan La Laguna located along the shores of Lake Atitlán, Melisa, whom while new to the program, comes from the tropical self-sufficient agricultural community of La Florida participating in its second straight year, in addition to five new participants–Raúl, Alicia, Mari, Nancy and Carolina- coming from different communities spread throughout the vast expanses of the municipality of Chiantla. While our training was intentionally held in as central of a location as possible, almost everybody had to partake in a long and tiring day of travel –walking, hiking and changing many buses- to join us for the training. With travel times ranging from 2-13 hours, there was absolutely no doubt about the group’s earnestness and commitment to the program.
Six of the seven invitees were entirely new to the program and largely without any experience as educators, making this training an entirely new beast from past iterations where the bulk of our facilitators were graduated teachers. The gradual shift from working with unemployed teachers to youth leaders from remote areas called for almost an entirely new and flexible training approach, a difficult challenge to which our staff responded to impeccably.
As to be expected, the group of 16-23 year olds' demeanor could initially be described as incredibly shy and hesitant to engage in certain activities or ask questions. However, thanks to our staff’s creativity and a necessity for team work, the ice was slowly but surely broken, allowing for a truly dynamic learning atmosphere to take place. With practical classroom techniques and routines discussed during the mornings on the first few days and engaging activities sprinkled in throughout the afternoons, the group found itself gelling in no time and grasping all of the new information faster than we ever anticipated.
Once classes adjourned, facilitators where asked to study their materials and work on crafts that would be needed for the following day –getting them accustomed to a routine of planning that is so important to any teacher’s success. Much to our pleasant surprise, a glance into one of the dorm rooms following classes would typically reveal a quiet group pouring over their activity manuals and reviewing their notes from that day. In the evenings teams and roles were assigned to everybody in the group to help cook or prepare a certain meal, making meal time an exercise in both laughter and comradery, bringing smiles and a sense of satisfaction to everybody. It goes without saying that nearly every waking minute was taken advantage of and utilized to have fun, learn and work together in some way or fashion.
Once familiar with basic classroom expectations and a solid pedagogical base, the group would spend their morning putting all of their new theories into practice working with a large group of wide-eyed preschoolers at a local school. Just a few minutes into the first class, the children had already fallen in love with all of the different components of the program, asking us each day if we would be coming back for classes tomorrow. While again timid at first around the kids, the demonstrated success of our activities and growing familiarity with program materials helped buoyed the confidence of our youth leaders leading to immense progress and a growing sense of comfort with each passing day.
For our final night together as a group we headed into town to celebrate the successful culmination of the training, where we shared laughs and pizza before each participant was honored with a diploma cementing their status as the next generation of rural educational facilitators. Before heading our separate ways the final morning, each member of our graduating class expressed feeling prepared and most importantly, proud, to represent Aula Mágica and impart a new era of learning in their communities. We ourselves couldn’t be more proud to call them part of our organization’s family and feel certain that each and every one will thrive as they embark on their journey as leaders of positive and lasting change.
New Curriculum And New Technology For Classroom Teachers, Rural Libraries, And Promoters
We are taking preschool into rural areas and into the 21st century with leading edge technology, not only to deliver the programs, but also to eliminate cumbersome printed user manuals, and allow the teachers using the programs to suggest improvements to the content through the internet. This will result in constant improvement and provide the most current programs in the hands of the teachers though out the school year.
When not using their tablets for teaching the kids or making recommendations for improvements, they can study English on free internet apps, or take pictures with a flash camera and write emails to their sponsors. They could even call them on Video Skype!
Playing the programs, planning from the suggested activities, filling an evaluation form, and writing suggestions for improvements can all be done without a connection to the internet. To update the programs, send their ideas for improvements or to Skype and send the pictures and emails they have written, they will have to at some time go to a wifi enabled area. These areas are accessible to most rural Guatemalans while on trips the nearest medium sized pueblo to go to the market, visit family and do other errands common in their lives. The items remain stored on their tablets until connected to the internet, no matter how long that takes.
The tablets and speakers do require charging. In areas where there is not electricity we are providing special mp3 players with solar chargers. Too, we are installing at least one 10 station solar charger and LED light bulbs in a centrally located school for use by the teachers and community members who will pay a fee that will go towards buying replacement storage batteries.
It is quite a jump from the CD players, printed manuals and notebooks that we have been using, but cost effective and will result in much faster development of the programs, using the ideas of the people using the programs in the classrooms. Printed color manuals (good for one year) cost $45. The CD/MP3 player cost $30.
A tablet and speaker can be purchased for around a $100.
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