Some of my friends and family are impressed that I go to El Hato and volunteer with Las Manos. To be honest, they shouldn’t be. For me, it’s something I thoroughly enjoy. In late November I completed my third volunteer stint there, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I go.

Pete 400This time I arrived during the “summer” camp. The public schools were on break, so Las Manos was running a short program to keep the kids engaged. As usual, the needs varied, and I offered to help wherever needed. I took a few turns on driver-duty, as not all the Las Manos volunteers and employees know how to drive a manual transmission. I helped a tiny bit in the phonics class Alejandra was teaching for several students who needed to catch up, and it was great to see the kids so absorbed in learning to read. I also helped a little with arts and crafts projects and with the sports class. I took about 20 gazillion photos, which gave Las Manos a plentiful supply to use in Facebook, the blog, the website, the newsletter, and so forth. But my main job was to run the computer class.

When I arrived, Las Manos was just starting its program of sending kids to Jocotenango to participate in a music education program run by Sistema de Orquestas de Guatemala (SOG). A chaperone was needed to go with the kids, and Paulo, one of the Las Manos English teachers, filled that role. But that meant that no one was in charge of the computer class. As I’ve made a career in software development, I offered to fill in.

I have to admit that I wasn’t as strict with the kids as Paulo was, but I believe they still got a lot out of the class during my short stint there. The class was supposed to run from 9:30 until 10:30am. But soon after I started as teacher, the kids began showing up at 9:00am. “Podemos jugar?” they would say. (Can we play games?) Well, technically we were still within the 8:30-9:30 game-playing period, so I always said yes.

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We conducted the class on the desktop computers that the public school had recently received from a different NGO. There’s a lot to criticize in those computers. They’re refurbished, so they’re old and slow and don’t really have enough memory for Windows 8. Often they don’t start up correctly so it is necessary to reboot them, sometimes several times, just to get them going. That other NGO didn’t give the administrator password to the school, so even some simple changes, like fixing the time of day, are impossible. And of course, there is no internet service in El Hato.

But despite all those disadvantages, they’re great! They’re loaded with educational software, including educational games. During the game period, some kids would stick to games they knew. Others would explore every possible thing that could be done with the computers. In fact, it was through the latter group of kids that I really learned the capabilities of those desktops.

One favorite program was RACHEL, a web-based application created by Las Manos’ partner NGO World Possible and accessed via the Chrome web browser. World Possible has created a small electronic box that sits on the local area net and acts as the web server for the program. RACHEL contains a complete snapshot of Wikipedia in both Spanish and English; the Khan Academy math program; and a ton of educational games.

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Other programs on the desktops include Microsoft Encarta (where the kids found videos of soccer players and dance styles of different cultures), a dictionary program, two typing programs, an art program, Microsoft Office, and more. As a software developer, I’ve probably typed in hundreds of thousands of lines of text into computers during my career, and touch typing has literally been an invaluable skill for me, boosting my productivity quite significantly by allowing me to develop software almost as fast as I could think it. So when one of the students stumbled upon Mecanet, a program which provides a series of self-taught touch typing lessons, I explained to the class the basic principles behind touch typing. After that I was pleased to see kids occasionally straying from the games and, on their own initiative, taking the time to learn touch typing on Mecanet.

Each day, when 9:30 would roll around, I began the computer class. I taught some of the basics behind computers in general, and about MS Word and Excel. For me, teaching is a humbling experience. It’s easy to observe a teacher (or an expert in any field, for that matter) and think, “He should be doing this,” or “She should be doing that.” But when you are in front of a group of kids, each with his/her own background, skill set, and level of interest, you really experience the challenge of teaching. Especially if you aren’t teaching in your native language! That said, I believe the El Hato students learned a bit about the power of computers and programs like Word and Excel.

A snowstorm in Northeast United States prevented me from getting home for Thanksgiving. I missed my family, but I was happy to stay three extra days helping out in El Hato, right up to the end of the summer camp. Now I’m back in the States and I miss Antigua and El Hato. I’ll be back as soon as I can!

-Pete McManus

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