Living in remote villages that dot Guatemala, many young children must wait until first grade to experience the simple wonder of using a pencil.
In these outposts, electricity, if available at all, is finicky. Internet service does not exist. Access is by trails and paths instead of roads. Only bigger cities offer public kindergarten, leaving children with little to do as their parents work the fields.
Part of the ‘magic' of our program is the ability to turn anywhere into a fun and creative place for learning. - Michael Estill
Despite the challenges, free, digital learning is reaching clusters of preschool-age youngsters in several Guatemalan communities that have no early childhood education programs.
A class facilitator presents an audio lesson that was downloaded into her tablet. (Photo courtesy of Magic Classroom.)
These 5 and 6 year olds learn from a tablet, loaded with interactive activities and an audio program, promoting literacy and other essential learning outcomes. A young facilitator uses a wireless speaker to amplify lessons in the "Magic Classroom," known locally by its name in Spanish, Aula Mágica.
"Part of the ‘magic' of our program is the ability to turn anywhere into a fun and creative place for learning. As such, our facilitators lead classes in a variety of settings. Some work in a spare classroom in the primary school, community centers, churches or from within their own homes," said Michael Estill, program director of the Magic Classroom.
In lieu of Internet coverage, Magic Classroom relies on Android and Bluetooth functions, which are increasingly available in isolated rural areas because of the proliferation of smartphones.
"In areas without electricity, we provide facilitators with a small, solar-charging apparatus to power the tablet sufficient for classroom use. We are still in the process of identifying the perfect combination of tablet and solar-charging units suitable for our communities' needs," said Estill, 24, a 2013 graduate of Portland State University, where he majored in Latin American studies and Spanish.
Under consideration are the eight-inch AOC Breeze Tablet Q80Y31, the seven-inch Tablet CTLIFE Dual Core C7230 and the seven-inch HOTT Android 4.2 Jelly Bean Tablet. As for speakers, organizers selected the OontZ Curve, developed by Cambridge SoundWorks, due to its sound quality, durable build and long-lasting charge, Estill added.
The program is the brainchild of Fred Zambroski, 70, whose 35-year career included manufacturing management for several U.S. and Canadian corporations before becoming a human resources consultant. Upon retirement, he moved to Guatemala to learn Spanish and volunteer, leading him in 2007 to establish the nonprofit Let's Be Ready (Pequeños Pero Listos). The organization recruits unemployed and newly graduated teachers to open preschool classrooms in remote areas. From this the Magic Classroom emerged.
A child dances to music amplified on a wireless speaker as classmates circle around him. (Photo courtesy of Magic Classroom.)
"The tablets idea came about when we were trying to figure out how we could keep the curriculum materials up to date and communicate with the teachers in the rural areas. It is expensive and time consuming to visit them," Zambroski explained.
The Magic Classroom spreads learning further, not necessarily with teachers per se but enthusiastic, intelligent 16-24 year olds who live in the target community and otherwise might be raising livestock, tending to crops and helping with household chores. They receive a $12.50 stipend weekly for leading classes, which meet two hours a day, Monday-Friday.
Limited access to early childhood education is common problem throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a 2010 UNESCO study. This contributes significantly to Guatemala's 30%+ failure rate of first-graders (compared to roughly 3.5% in the U.S., according to the American Educational Research Association.)
"This lost time right smack during the child's formative years is terribly unsettling and spells significant trouble in future grades," Estill said. "Children in rural areas spend their first seven years with incredibly little stimulation. They might play in dirt or maybe follow around their parents in the field, but never will have even so much glanced at an alphabet, learned the names of the colors, or even held a pencil before. They're at a huge disadvantage before they ever begin the first grade."
Magic Classroom serves 168 kids in nine communities, with a planned expansion of 10 more classrooms by the end of 2015 for a reach of nearly 300 children.
Only in its second year, Magic Classroom is still compiling its first batch of data to formally gauge its impact, but feedback has been positive:
"We've had parents and facilitators alike rave about how eager the children are to go to school every day," Estill said. "Teachers already working with last year's graduates say the difference working with our kids is like ‘night and day.' "
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