Use your vacation to do good in exotic locations

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Kids on Computers is planning a trip to the Huajuapan de Leon, Mexico area in June. If you can, please join us! If you can’t, please consider donating to help the labs we’ll be working on.

Most of us will be going down for a week or so. There are travel stipends available for those willing to spend a month helping in the area.

What could I possibly do to help? I ask myself this every time I go. Especially since I usually drag my kids along. Here are the things you can help with.

  1. Technical skills. If you can plug in computers, troubleshoot basic hardware problems, install Linux on lots of different kinds of old hardware, figure out why a mouse isn’t working, any of those things, you’ll be very much appreciated! We have to have at least one Linux guru on every trip. The rest of us follow directions. Upgrading 20 old computers in a school with no internet can be a long, manual process; it goes faster with more hands.
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  2. Language skills. This trip is to Mexico. A large majority of the volunteers will not speak fluent Spanish. None of the kids and teachers in these schools will speak much English. If you can help translate, that’s a huge benefit. Not just when setting up the labs but when figuring out where to get supplies or going out for dinner. And if you don’t know the Spanish words for technical gadgets, it’s sometimes a really funny experience, especially when you’re not sure what you are trying to describe might look like. I’d never used ethernet crimpers until a trip to Mexico.
  3. Teaching skills. When we teach a class, we like to have lots of helpers. Helpers to show people how a mouse works, how to double click and how to change windows. Often neither the kids nor the teachers have used a mouse or a keyboard before, much less opened an app or saved a file.
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  4. Logistical, herding cat skills. When you have 4 or 5 schools you are trying to work with, all spread out in different towns and 8 or 10 volunteers with different skills and you need a Spanish speaker with each group and someone who can figure out why the network is down in this school and someone who can update Linux on 4 laptops in another school … you need some logistical people. People who can help track who is where and what needs to be done.
  5. Documentation and note taking. We have all sorts of things we should and try to document. What computers are in which school? What’s installed on them? What finally worked to get Linux installed on that computer that had no USB drive? What should we bring next time? What worked in that class? What didn’t? What apps did the kids use the most? Every evening we try to spend some time working on this, but having someone dedicated to documenting what we’ve done, what works and what still needs to be done, who could do it while we are at the schools, would be great.
  6. Errand runner, make things out of paper clips person. We are always missing something, short something, need something. We soldered ethernet cables at one school! After stringing them across a road!
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Besides just logistical efforts, there’s the benefit to you and what your support brings to the area.

  1. Support local efforts. I recently read this effort that said international volunteers are often just in the way. I agree, that sometimes local resources exist and if they are there, you should use them. In our case, I think there are very few people with technical skills in the little towns we go to. We do try to pull in local university students and technical people whenever possible. And we have to go back frequently, because going once, setting things up and then leaving isn’t helpful. They get new teachers, forget passwords, computers break. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
    With the travel grants, we hope to get local university students from nearby towns involved. But the other major benefit of bringing in outside people is that you get local people excited about it.When we set up 18 de Marzo, because we were there, we were able to bring in local media, the local school district, the mayor … because we visited the school, the school got more interest from local supporters.
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    Unfortunately, they still don’t have internet access nor an accessible high school. But they do have a super involved parent organization and a full time computer teacher funded by student families!
  2. Spread the word. If you go on vacation to Huajuapan de Leon, you’re going to have the experience of a life time. And you are going to share your pictures and stories with all your family and friends. A few of them may join us next time. Or donate. Or just be more aware of the world.
  3. Spread your horizons. I take my kids so that they can see that kids have fun without Xboxes. They have a blast playing soccer and making new friends. And, yes, they did find the only arcade machine within miles. In the back corner of a little tiny store tucked away on a side street.
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What to expect?

  1. It’s slow. Most of us are used to scheduling every minute of our time and being as efficient as possible. It doesn’t work that way on a volunteer trip to rural Mexico. Just getting there takes a while. We fly down to Oaxaca, spend the night. Walk across town the next day, get a van ride, drive through the mountains, walk to our hotel. Work doesn’t start until 2-3 days after you leave home!
  2. It’s not perfect. This is a volunteer run trip. And each trip presents different challenges. And not everyone has phones. Almost no one has internet. Getting from school to school means coordinating rides, arriving to find out they weren’t ready for you or the teachers were on strike, figuring out what equipment you need, what some of you can do while a couple of people drive all the way back to town to buy as much ethernet cable as they can, waiting around while your most seasoned Linux guru figures out why the installs aren’t working, … if you enjoy the people, what you are trying to do and use the time to get to know each other and the schools better, it’s great. If you came just to do technical work, it’d be frustrating.
  3. Friendly people. The other volunteers and especially the teachers, families and students are awesome. Everyone is appreciative, helpful and outgoing. Just super. The parents usually feed us. Lots of people give us rides. Some people open up their houses. My kids make friends everywhere. Terrific people.
  4. Not completely modernized. We stay in Huajuapan which is a decent sized small city. It’s got lots of restaurants and a few hotels. Grocery stores and mobile phone shops. And the water is often not hot. And the sidewalks can prove challenging. You might end up riding in the back of a pickup truck. Or walking a long ways in very hot, humid weather. On the good side, there’s no McDonalds and all the little shops are very interesting and very reasonable.
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  5. Beautiful. The area around Huajuapan de Leon is gorgeous mountainous country side.
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  6. Pretty inexpensive. Airfare is a bit pricey but after that it’s not expensive. Hotel rooms run $10-40/night. Dinners might run $3-15/person depending on what you decide to eat. So you can stay there pretty inexpensively. The van ride to Huajuapan is so cheap, I can’t figure out how the price of the ride from Oaxaca can cover gas. I spent a good hour of the trip doing math in my head and I have no idea how they are making a profit. Cabs around town are just $1-2, but cabs out to the other towns where are labs are can be quite pricey. (The cab drivers are friendly though. Avni and I took a cab out to Saucitlan de Morelos once and the cab driver was not just worried about leaving us there when we couldn’t find our friends, he was worried about the whole town because they had no phones and no cell service!)

So should you come? If any of that sounds fun, absolutely. We need you and you’ll be doing good in the world while having fun. If you can’t, no worries. If possible, contribute to some cause to make the world a better place. You can donate to Kids on Computers! :)

You have to take care of the individuals as well as the process

I read an awesome book last month, Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Connor Grennan that made me realize that in addition to saving the world and solving big problems that affect millions of people, we also need to make sure everyone has a champion.

Little Princes is about this guy who decides to quit work and travel around the world. In order to look less like he’s on a boondoggle, he decides to stop in Nepal and volunteer at an orphanage. While there he falls in love with the kids and makes a personal commitment to several of them. He also discovers that many are not really orphans but rather children whose families are trying to save them from being recruited as soldiers.

When he finds out that 7 of the kids he promised to help have gone missing, he starts a nonprofit, raises money and goes back to find those 7 kids. He sees hundreds of needy children, but he hunts for those 7 kids. (He also opens an orphanage and does a ton of great things along the way.)

I struggled with that for a while – his ability to continue hunting for 7 kids while tons of others could have used his help. He passes hundreds of kids who need his help and focuses on finding those 7. At some point, I think I would have given up and gone to work fixing the political system that caused the problem. Trying to fix it for just 7 kids would have felt pointless. Then I realized that I fight every day for the 2 kids in my house. I help hundreds of kids indirectly through my work but I am a champion for the individual kids that live in my house. And they have not just me but their dad and a huge extended family of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

So everybody needs someone who is fighting for them as an individual. And all of us need to fight for the individuals we believe in as well as the causes.

So what does this mean? I think we need to focus more on relationships, not just causes. In the open source world, we do this a lot through events and blogging. We do it when we say we’re a “meritocracy” and each individual earns their role. We value the individual and form tight bonds that aren’t dissolved when someone changes roles or gets hired or fired. The individual is more important than the role. The project is made up of individuals.

I think there are also opportunities for a different kind of mentorship. A much more accountable, visible mentorship.

What do you mean when you say “Write it down?”

I had this misunderstanding with my 5 year old about taking notes and looking them up.

“Mom, how old was I when I said my first word?”

“I don’t remember, but I wrote it down, so I can look it up.”

“Why?”

“Why did I write it down? Because I knew you might want to know some day.”

A few seconds later. “How old was I?”

“I don’t know. I’ll look it up.”

A pause. A pointed look at my phone. “How old was I when I said my first word?”

“I don’t know! I wrote it down. I’ll look it up for you when we get home.”

Another pause. Another look at the phone. “Is it stuck in the computer?”

Ah! “No, I wrote it down with a pen. On a piece of paper in a notebook. I have to find the notebook. I’ll find it when we get home.”

So what do you mean when you say you “wrote it down?” Five years ago, I meant I wrote it in a notebook with a pen. Today it means I noted it down some where in the cloud. Or perhaps I put just on my computer and it’s “stuck” there.

Firefox to the rescue!

My son broke his arm this week and had 2.5 hours of surgery this morning. Firefox kept him company throughout. (When the nurse asked him where Firefox came from, he told her “Mommy’s work.”)

Firefox even keeps watch over the elevated arm.

Firefox the web browser has also been a life saver. Watching movies over the internet with Firefox is a good way to stay still …

Did you have to fight?

Yesterday it was implied that I might not know everything about raising boys because I wasn’t in physical fights as a child. While I am sure I do not know everything about raising boys, I was startled to think that not engaging in physical fights would be a parenting gap.

I was even more taken aback to be told my career path was easier because I never had to engage physical fights. While I’m not afraid of controversy, I avoid physical fights. I consider that a wise decision that has advanced my career.

So I promised to get more data about people in “successful careers” like mine and whether they thought fighting was important or not.

I was able to find data on fighting in kids: fighting among school aged children is declining in the US. Whereas 43% of 9-12 graders had been in a fight in the past year in 1991, only 32% had in 2009. There is also a gender and race difference. 39% of boys had been in a fight and only 23% of girls.

But I did not find any data that broke down those that fought and what careers they ended up in.

So here’s a short survey for you. I will share all the data on my blog. (This survey is anonymous. I am not saving IP addresses or any other identifying information.)

Please take a minute to fill it out.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Mother’s Day Tradition

My stepson’s mom has one of the most awesome traditions. She throws a Mother’s Day party every year. Every year I feel extremely grateful and honored to be included. Raising a kid across two households is not an easy thing but she makes it possible because she’s an awesome mom.

(And I think we need a few more relationship words in our language these days. How should I refer to my stepson’s mom? My boyfriend’s ex? We need a few more words …)

Actually, a good book on fish

Did you know that not only are there entire books on fish, but there are entire books on single types of fish?

Much to my delight, my four year old sees the library as a treasure house of information. He’s not interested in the stories (although I push them every time), he just wants to head to the nonfiction section. Sometimes he has a topic in mind, but if not, we always end up looking at fish books.

This weekend, a book about sharks caught his eye, Sharks and Other Creatures of the Deep. As we read through it, I was really impressed at how much information they taught in a fun way. For example, they taught about ocean currents (and pollution) by talking about 29,000 rubber duckies that fell of a container ship in the Pacific and how they’ve been found from Hawaii to Greenland over time.

I think the best part of the book is the layout. It varies from page to page but really keeps little guys interested when they might not be able to follow whole pages of prose. (And even though I’d said I wasn’t going to read it right then, I found myself peering over his shoulder pointing things out.) And it’s not just about sharks … that was just the teaser.

(Last week the topic he was interested in was space, and with the librarians’ help, I managed to get my hands on a book I read over 25 years ago, The First Travel Guide to the Moon. That was fun.)

 

Too skinny and too fat: what happened to normal?

Photo by Camera baba' aka Udit Kulshrestha

You hear a lot about how the media potrays super-skinny models and they make poor role models for young women.

Today I turned on the TV and there was a cartoon with an obese girl in it. Interesting, I thought, they’re trying to portray reality. Then I noticed that every other character had a waist the size of their arm. (Literally, I paused and checked. The male characters had muscular arms and so had slightly bigger waists. The girls all had thin arms and ridiculously thin waists.) So there were a whole bunch of super skinny characters plus one obese girl and one obese boy.

What kind of body image message is that sending?

Learning division in school these days

One of the things that has frustrated us with our 10 year old’s current school is that he has no text books. This makes it hard for us to look up how he’s learning things. It’s especially frustrating in math as they now learn different methods we did.

Recently, I was struggling to show him how to divide. (Well, I wasn’t struggling to show him how to divide but my way seemed to be completely foreign to him, as if he’d never learned it before. So I was struggling to build on what he already knew.)

So I asked his teacher how he had taught the class to divide, and he sent me back this work sheet with the “4 methods he had taught them”.

Nevermind that those are 3 methods and one explanation on how to write problems – I will admit that at times I’m a bit too pedantic about saying exactly what you mean. (But really, it’s math, you have to say 3 when you mean 3!)

While it seems like a good way to understand what division is all about, it seems to be lacking in ways to easily come up with the exact answer. But it does work to teach them how multiplication and division are related.

I also really liked that it was immediately followed up with word problems, i.e. “Mike has 32 cookies. He wants to share them equally with his 6 friends. How many cookies does each friend get?”

I hope there’s a next step where they learn how to divide the “good old-fashioned way”.  Whether or not they do, I’ve already taught my 10 year old that way, although I had to teach him decimals as well. (I’m sure that when I first learned to divide, they very conveniently left out all problems with remainders and then added them in later.)

Which way do you think is the best way to teach kids about division?

Is it bad to argue in front of your kids? (Was: apologize to someone you’ve wronged.)

Is it bad to argue in front of your kids?

Benjamin Zander, the author of The Art of Possibility (My review: The book that changed my life the day I read it), has started a meme promoted by Miguel and Jeffrey Stedfast, to apologize to someone you’ve wronged.

My first instinct was to apologize to my kids for arguing in front of them. When we do that it really bothers me and I wonder how it affects them. However, according to NurtureShock by Po Bronson (recommended by Cathy Malmrose), while hearing parents argue stresses kids out, if they hear the end of the argument (and hopefully two happy parents) they go back to feeling normal stress levels. And they learn about conflict resolution. But if you “take the argument upstairs” and they don’t hear the resolution, they remain stressed.

So perhaps I should now have a discussion with Frank about how we argue in front of the kids. I sent them to their rooms and when that didn’t work Frank sent them to watch tv (which was a better distraction but still not enough.)

But if I let the kids watch an argument I have to answer all sorts of very difficult questions. I regularly get asked about why our old car couldn’t be fixed, why owls eat rabbits, why cars need gas, why we can’t have cookies for breakfast, why I wear contacts, why we have to wear clean clothes, why our dog will die one day … and explaining why we were arguing about whatever we were arguing about … well I just want to say “go to your room”! So perhaps the real apology I owe to my kids is for lazily not wanting to explain the argument to them.

But really, there are some subjects you’d rather not get asked why about too much …