The Treehouse was named by the literacy volunteers of the summer of 2007. The four participants, Kate Dickson, Suzanne Kromrey, Maia Lawson and Jenn Mansell came to set up a learning system that would motivate and support English-language learning through media literacy: computers, typing and the Internet, digital cameras and voice recorders, bookmaking and desktop publishing. Through daily interaction of the volunteer "Treehouse Team" with self-selected schoolchildren and adults over a period of ten weeks, a learning community was established and villagers demonstrated increasing ownership of the space and its resources. On a typical afternoon, forty to sixty people can be found in the Treehouse.
Inside the Treehouse, all villagers may learn to type on laptop computers equipped with typing programs, enhance their English-language skills by using Rosetta Stone software, and practice both by setting up and using a Gmail account. These three skills are the foundation for all the other technology-based learning opportunities available at the Treehouse.
The core of the Treehouse are daily ESL classes two hours in length, currently based on vocabulary-emphasized lesson plans. Students write from prompts on the dry erase board, practice pronunciation and creative sentence writing, and perform follow-up work on the computers. As the number of students has grown, it has became necessary to form subgroups to rotate through a variety of activities and centers. While some students use the laptops, others discuss vocabulary, undertake photography projects, or learn to make books. Games and songs add fun and variety to language learning. After class computers are still available for two more hours of independent study and practice.
A significant focus has been to use the technology tools to document daily life and culture in Yupukari. With guidance from the Treehouse Team and village librarians, students explore local subjects to make picture books and videos.
Villagers have also been introduced to using the Internet for research, as they learn to find websites connected to the ESL vocabulary of the week.
Well before the conclusion of the pilot/volunteer phase, the Yupukari Public Library staff have taken responsibility and ownership of the Treehouse and its learning activities. They in turn are recruiting and managing a school-aged crew who will implement a peer-teaching approach to English and technology. To help them we are hard at work on the library portal page, and are actively exploring linkages to distance learning programs at schools of education that can provide structured learning support.
Suzanne, Jenn, Kate, and Maia.
The Treehouse volunteers began making books within the first week of the summer program by designing themed scavenger hunts for young children: to find and then photograph specific things around Caiman House, and to write Basic English texts to accompany the images. The children became familiar with the cameras and voice recorders and made the 123 book and the ABC book in both movie and paper-based forms within the first week of the program. Now participants are accustomed to coming to the Treehouse and accessing cameras for their own original book projects, such as Walk With Me and Daniel in the Lion's Den.
The Treehouse volunteers then introduced this approach to bookmaking to the Yupukari schoolteachers, who had been making crayon and newsprint class books to enhance reading instruction since the inception of the Rupununi Learners Foundation teacher training program.
After-school bookmaking that meshed with schoolroom topics, involving the librarians and children working together, was proposed. Out of this discussion, a teacher requested a book of verbs for young children, using verbs in sentences and illustrating them with action photos of children in the village.
One of the librarians went on to make this book with small groups of students, the library cameras, computers and printer. This book was produced in hard copies and given to the teacher for classroom use. It can be amended and reprinted at will: a significant contribution to local literacy, in light of the complete lack of commercial texts that depict Macushi life. A precedent for customized, relevant books, made by students for use by students in response to schoolroom needs, was set. Other vocabulary-based books, about transportation, feelings, birds and farming, followed upon this project.
The Yupukari Public Library staff have also been fully trained by the volunteers to use all of the equipment and to guide the bookmaking process. Wih their assistance now anyone in the village can depict their lives and ideas, contribute to classroom learning, and improve their English.
In the Treehouse, the bookmaking process is integrated with the themed vocabulary for each week's ESL programming. New vocabulary is presented on the white board, the children use it in English sentences and paragraphs, and use the Internet to learn more about the topic. Then the children take photographs on the topic around the village and use their sentences to make a book on the computer and printer, learning to use publishing software in the process.
Treehouse bookmaking is mostly about process, because it is the process that channels creativity, learning, and literacy, but we are also proud of our products. Some of the books created in the Treehouse may interest commercial publishers. If so, the funds raised from publishing would be returned to the Yupukari Public Library to further enhance learning in Yupukari and other Rupununi villages.
For the people of Yupukari computers offer a fun and exciting way to improve reading and writing skills, to experience modern technology and to connect with an ever-expanding world. As part of the Treehouse project we have created Gmail accounts for all interested participants. Gmail is easy to use and links to many worthwhile utilities, such as Blogger.
Currently participants are encouraged to email each other back and forth. In the process they are becoming more proficient in their typing skills, they are writing English and they are learning to use the Internet. Beyond its obvious value as an empowering communication tool, Gmail will also help Treehouse learners access educational opportunities, as we move toward the possibility of becoming a distance learning center for the community.
Developing the playground design
Another role of the Treehouse pilot program was to facilitate the design and construction of a culturally-embedded playground, which has been talked about for nearly two years, but was awaiting a participatory design process.
The development of the design was a collaborative effort of parents', teachers', but mostly children's, ideas. There were a series of planned stages, including as many villagers as possible, so that from concept to construction, the playground would be a community project.
The first step was to encourage and observe play on the site of the future playground. Many similarities between North American and Rupununi play were noted: for example, the kids love to climb.
Treehouses, wabbanis (hunters' hides constructed in the forest canopy) and canopy walkways were persistent and popular images, as the children made drawings, then 3D models, and finally photographs to express their dreams for the playground. A handful of village students who are the most advanced in computer skills undertook to learn Google SketchUp to generate the construction drawings.
The playground was constructed by a team of young village carpenters, most of whom learned "on the job," building the guesthouse at Caiman House. They in turn trained teenagers as helpers. This team was supplemented by "myu" or "village self-help" labor, organized by the Village Council and donated by villagers.