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Anecdotes of Well-being

The following anecdotes come from the second year of CHIP when a dedicated room was provided for the program and a real sense of community emerged.

Anecdote #1

On the third day of the second year of CHIP two older boys approached the teacher. They were new to the program and were working on a grade twelve computer course.

“Sir,” one named Sean said, “the school uses Waterloo Structured Basic for our computer course, but it’s kind of old. My mom works for a company that uses Visual Basic. She said she could get us a copy of it. Can we use it instead of Waterloo Structured Basic?”

“I haven’t thought about that before,” the teacher said. “You know we can’t use unlicensed software.”

“It would be a licensed copy,” Sean said. “Her company is expanding and they bought more licenses than they need right now. She said they could loan us one of the extra copies.”

“Is there enough memory to install it on the computer?” the teacher asked, computer memory at that time being quite limited.

“Yes. We checked. There’s lots of room on the hard drive and we have the RAM it needs.”

“What about the requirements for the course? Are you going to be able to learn the programming that is required for it?”

“Oh yah!” they both answered, sensing the teacher was not going to be a problem for them. “We can still do all the Basic programming, but we can do a lot more too with Visual Basic.”

“Should we check with the rest of the class to see if any of them object?” the teacher asked.

This question surprised the boys as they thought of the teacher as having the power to make unilateral decisions, but after a moment, the one named Greg responded. “I don’t think we need to. It doesn’t affect them. There’s still room if they want to put their stuff on the computer.”

“Yah, and the others can use our Visual Basic if they want to,” Sean added.

“Let’s give it a try then, but with no guarantees. If problems arise you may have to remove it,” the teachers said.

“Ok,” they responded enthusiastically.

“I’ll give your mom a call to thank her,” the teacher told Sean thinking he had to confirm the software was legal.

Two days later the boys arrived full of excitement. Tucked under Sean’s arm was a Visual Basic box containing manuals and a stack of disks. The boys were soon the center of attention demonstrating that students could install software and make things happen. Two days later they had a tutorial program running that was as complex as anything they were expected to accomplish by the end of their course.

As they worked on their programs, their enthusiasm was contagious. Little groups would gather around them at times to watch what was happening, and one younger girl in particular, a grade ten student called Susan who had been labeled “gifted”, became enthralled with what she saw. Often she was seen sitting behind the boys soaking up what they were learning and gradually they accepted her as one of them.

Six weeks into the program Sean and Greg were talking with the teacher and they made this confession.

“When we signed up for CHIP,” Sean said, “we planned to have nothing to do with the little grade ten and eleven kids, but we don’t even notice their age now. They just seem like everyone else.”

“You came into CHIP planning to discriminate on the basis of age even though you knew the program is about equality?” the teacher said in jest.

“Yah,” Sean answered, “We just wanted to work on the computers all day.”

Susan went on to become a computer engineer, and years after those first days with Visual Basic she wrote, “CHIP was undoubtedly the best thing that has ever happened to me throughout my schooling years. For the first time ever, I looked forward to each new school day and the things it would bring.”

Anecdote #2

George was another student captivated by what Sean and Greg were doing, but he wanted to do his own thing.

“Sir, can I install Turbo C+ on the computer?” he asked the teacher about a month into CHIP.

“Where would you get it?” the teacher inquired.

“I will buy it out of my own money.” He had seen it on sale at a local retailer and knew he could afford it.

“What about your computer course?” the teacher asked.

“That’s no problem. That’s baby stuff,” he responded.

George was a twelfth grade student who hadn’t done well in school and he was reaching back for credits. His computer course was a tenth grade one and he felt stigmatized taking it. He thought others viewed him as a dummy working below grade level. Later he told people he would have been a dropout had it not been for CHIP.

“I know you can handle the course, but are you fulfilling the requirements?” the teacher asked.

“I’ve already done most of it. It’s a waste of time,” he said bristling with attitude.

“Let me see what you’ve done with it so that I can better advise you about C+,” the teacher said, and with the outline of the course requirements they went to a computer.

In less than fifteen minutes of assessment, George dispelled the myth that public education with its lock step, controlled approach to learning is efficient. He had already covered the bulk of the course. Unleashed from the boring, trudging pace of a one hundred and ten hour course, he roared through the material.

“I didn’t realize you had covered so much,” the teacher said to George. “You already know enough to get a decent grade in the course. I would put you in the seventies, maybe even the low eighties with what you have shown me. Have you decided what you are going to do about the parts you still need to master?”

“I’ll keep working on them, but I don’t need all my time for them,” he said.

“A problem with C+ is that I have no experience with it,” the teacher told him. “I might not be able to help you much if you have trouble with it.”

“That’s OK,” he said. “There’s a tutorial with the program and I have a friend who uses it. He can help me.”

“Well I think you can go ahead with it then. Maybe you can make a project out of it that will add to your course mark.”

“Can I get the credit the guys doing Visual Basic are getting if I learn the stuff for that course?” he asked thinking of credits he had to catch-up and how he might graduate with his peers.

“No,” the teacher responded. “You’re only allowed to get four credits per semester.”

Soon after Turbo C+ was running on a CHIP computer and George was basking in a measure of the admiration extended to the boys working with Visual Basic. He stuck at Turbo C+, and sometime later, proud of his accomplishment, he said to the teacher, “I didn’t even know where the computer ‘On’ switch was when I started in CHIP.” The last the teacher heard of George, he was teaching computer courses at a business college.

Anecdote #3

There was a daycare across the street from CHIP. One afternoon on their way home from school two of the CHIP girls, Shannon and Clara, dropped in to see what was happening. They were eleventh grade girls. Shannon was quiet, Clara was outgoing, and both had been bored to death in regular classes.

The next day they arrived at school excited about an idea they had, and they went straight to the teacher.

“Shannon has a big box at home from a new appliance her family got. Can we make a playhouse out of it for the kids at the daycare?” Clara asked.

“Sure,” said the teacher. “If you want, we could make it into an art project so that you can get some course credit for it.”

“Ok,” the girls said, but they weren’t interested in getting credit. They just wanted to make a playhouse.

The next day the girls lugged the large cardboard box from Shannon’s nearby home and placed it in the middle of the CHIP open area, and that began a spectacle that is best described as refreshing.

They got to work immediately and kept at it all day for a number of days thereafter. In the middle of the room for all to see they made doors and windows, and decorated the inside and out. At times both girls were crammed inside the box, delighted and giggling. Quiet Shannon was coming out of her shell, and outgoing Clara peered out of a window from inside the box and laughingly said, “Look at me! I’m getting to play like a little kid.” What Clara did as she worked on that playhouse was to give everyone license to be less inhibited and to enjoy life being yourself.

When the girls decided that the playhouse was finished they again went to the teacher and asked, “Can we take it over to the daycare now?”

So the teacher gave their work of art a careful examination then declared, “If the kids at the daycare have half as much fun playing in this thing as you two did making it, it will be a great success.”

The girls went off truly happy and they spent the afternoon at the daycare playing in the house with the little kids. The teacher had given suggestions as the girls constructed the playhouse, but no art mark was appropriate for what they had accomplished. The initiative they showed, the thoughtfulness of doing something for the daycare, the example of engagement they provided to other CHIP students, and the actual crafting of the playhouse were priceless. To affix a value to it would have cheapened what had happened, and the teacher gave it no grade. “We can talk about a mark for it later,” he said, thinking he would just add bonus marks to whatever they achieved in the rest of their art course.

Anecdote #4

Hien was a Vietnamese boy who struggled to learn English. The year before he joined CHIP he would sit at the back of his ninth grade science class as removed as possible from the rest of the students. A constant scowl on his face said he hated every minute of being there. If the teacher tried to include him by asking him a question, he would recoil in an embarrassing silence that had a mass of staring eyes bearing down on him. In lab groups he stood behind his partners at the counters, a distinct space between him and them to register his disassociation. It was an environment he had to escape and CHIP was his only option.

Fast forward to a late October day in CHIP and one sees a different Hien. He is an elated young man jabbering in English with a fellow student as they worked on an art project. During the preceding weeks he had gradually come into his own. He had found some friends with whom he exercised his English, and that October moment in CHIP stood out like his total debut. Uninhibited, animated and happy, he was a joy to behold. If school is supposed to provide trust and acceptance, he appeared to have received it.

It was not long after this that a confident and relaxed Hien appeared before the teacher and asked, “Can I plan a Christmas party for the class?”

The teacher could not have been more taken aback. This withdrawn, forlorn boy of less than a year ago was offering to be the social coordinator.

“What do you have in mind?” the teacher asked, stifling his amazement.

Hien had already done his homework, or perhaps an entrepreneurial relative had done it for him; it didn’t matter.

“My uncle has a Vietnamese restaurant downtown that has a room in the back for groups. He said we could have our party there on a week night and he would give us a very good price on the meals.”

“I like the idea,” the teacher said encouragingly. “A Christmas party and an eating experience. Have you spoken to any of the others about it?”

“No, not yet,” he replied.

“Would you see what some of the others think and if they like the idea we can present it to the whole group.”

So off he went and before long he was back to say, “They think it’s a good idea.”

“Then let’s ask the whole group,” the teacher replied.

Hien the stood before the impromptu gathering and presented what he had in mind. The response he got was overwhelmingly supportive. It was a wonderful confirmation for him and he shone even brighter. Over the next couple of days the date was set, other details were worked out, and the excitement grew.

On the night of the party, the class met at the school and took the public bus to town. Hien had said he would meet the group at the restaurant and when they arrived they understood why he had gone ahead on his own. He was the maîtres d’, and he welcomed them warmly. With pride and the grace of a seasoned host he ushered his guests to their tables in the back room asking as they went if they had trouble finding the place.

He introduced everyone to fancy non-alcoholic drinks made available specially for the evening, and then he helped people order their meals by describing dishes on the menu and offering his recommendations. He did all of this with amazingly fluent English. Unlike traditional second language immersion programs that produce students who are still tongue-tied after years of study, usually because only one person in the class (generally the teacher) speaks at a time while all others sit silent, CHIP allowed Hien to speak freely with people he trusted, and with that he flourished.

Anecdote #5

Another story similar to Hien’s is that of Jonah. He too had been an odd man out. He was short, introverted, and distrusting of people. His home life had not been easy. He was one of the oldest students in CHIP, another potential dropout. During his semester in CHIP his girlfriend gave birth to his son and he was trying to be a good father.

Students like him who don’t fit the mold are targets of ridicule and are alienated in the homogeneous classes of traditional schools. They walk the halls as outcasts hiding their feeling, victims of schools that are misfits for them, yet they are the ones labeled misfits, but Jonah became an example in CHIP of how shunned people can become admired.

Jonah wanted to be an artist and he spent endless hours in the art corner producing a dark form of art that seemed to calm a turbulence within him. The teacher praised the depth of feeling his paintings contained and the students began to admire him as the resident artist. As the days went by his trust in the class grew like Hien’s, his defenses became less pronounced and the class got to see more how he hurt, what made him sad, what made him happy. People got to see him for what he was, one of them, another human being just trying to live his life as best he could. What the Visual Basic boys learned about age discrimination, the whole class learned about anyone who is perceived to be different. The more you get to know people the less likely you are to reject or fear them, and the more apt you are to celebrate their uniqueness for how it enriches your own life. When Jonah’s baby arrived he was already accepted by the class and gifts appeared bearing the message that he had become part of a family.

Akbar Ahmed, a professor of international relations at the American University in Washington, DC, described by the BBC as “probably the world’s best known scholar on contemporary Islam” understands what was experienced with Jonah. In May of 2005, he was on stage with Judea Pearl, the father of the reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in 2002 by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Their performance was titled The Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding and with just a few words Dr. Ahmed summed up what Jonah had taught the people in CHIP. “Friendship changes everything. You can’t blow each other up if you know each other.”

Getting to know each other happened in CHIP largely because students had the freedom to talk. The CHIP room was characterized by lots of chatter, and getting to know each other doesn’t happen without it. Lots of informal talk is required to replace hatred and alienation with understanding and acceptance, and nowhere can this be better provided for than through a vibrant public education system.

Some Benefits Observed in the Anecdotes

Discrimination was reduced as people got to know each other and celebrated their differences.

The freedom to talk aided second language development and the building of friendships that led to a sense of community.

Doing for others, as is seen with the playhouse and the Christmas Party, are more likely to happen when students are less constrained.

Positive effects of the cross-age mix were apparent with how Susan was challenged by the work of the older Visual Basic boys.

The more that students felt accepted and felt good about themselves, the more they appeared to be excited about learning.

Giving students more control over their tasks and how they could spend their time appeared to result in them being more engaged in learning.

The resources of local businesses and homes were used to help modernize, enrich and diversify the learning environment. Where Visual Basic and Turbo C+ would have been largely out of sight in just a couple of homes, they were instead made available to all CHIP students.

Students felt their learning was more relevant when they were using resources from the workplace.

Assessment of learning, as in the case of George’s computer knowledge, can be done one-on-one quickly and efficiently when the coercive aspect of it is removed and it is done solely to aid the learning process. This allows for considerably more time to be devoted to pure learning.

A Couple of Comments from the CHIP Teachers Talking to Each Other

“Have you notice how they (the students) step forward the more we step back.”

“This is the first time in all my teaching years that I finally feel I’m doing the right thing for students.”

A Final Note

The following unsolicited note was written by the mother of a CHIP student. Her family had been back in Canada for only a couple of years after living for an extended period in Asia. Her daughter’s “friends” (other CHIP students) were ordinary students so the mother’s note, along with the above anecdotes, helps to demonstrate that self-directed learning can work with the full spectrum of students.

“One of my daughters participated in this program (CHIP) and it was the first time since returning to Canada that she has been excited about going to school and enthusiastic about doing her assignments. I watched her and her friends help each other, discuss projects, plan their assignments and ignore the T.V. in order to do their work. She was eager to discuss with us what she was doing. She is now back in regular classes and is not nearly as challenged as before. This latter is not a criticism of the teachers. When students have to plan their work and teach themselves, they put more into their work. The guidance she received was sufficient for her to do well and enjoy herself while working.”

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