How Ubuntu saved a Smarty

This spring I did a little site and logo work for the owners of Zareason, a provider of some great open source / open hardware, primarily selling ubuntu desktops and laptops as well as linux servers. On our second project together, we decided to do a work trade — my work for a new Ubuntu laptop for my kids.

And oh, what a difference that system has made. My kids have always been smarties, but once Ethan started kindergarten he got a bit burned out on… well, everything. Whether its was boredom or the frustration of trying to fit the mold he’d been pushed into, he’d definitely lost his spark. Maybe a little background would help? Bear with my rant, or skip to the part on Ubuntu.

My kid’s teacher was taught, like most early childhood ed majors, to grossly underestimate smart kids. I left our first meeting being told that experts agree kids his age simply can’t read and quantify like an older child, even if he appeared to be doing so — he was simply adapting to a pushy parent. I’m not. I just let him be and he does his own thing. If she could have done that too, the year would have worked out better, but it bothered her that he didn’t fit her lesson plans, and she had her ways of letting us both know it. So started a bit of a bad year for my kid and me.

Once his teacher asked the class to draw pictures to represent 5, so they could begin to associate the number symbols with actual quantities. Ethan drew a big 5 and called it good. His teacher came by and said, “No, I don’t want you to just write a 5. I need you to make something that means 5.” Not a problem. Three strokes later and his picture did indeed mean five. It now said “10-5” — so much for kids not quantifying!

On another occasion, I’d asked his teacher for a level up on the books he was bringing home. He was able to read somewhere on a 2nd grade level before he started school, so the beginning phonics books were a major turn off. His teacher, though, was certain that he wasn’t really ‘reading’ and comprehending, and that if he was bored with the books, he should be writing a sentence about every book rather than trying to move up a level — an assignment Ethan truly despised.

I was sorry to burst his bubble one afternoon as he came skipping out with a new book called “School” that didn’t have any words at all. “And with no words, I don’t need to write a sentence, right?” Wrong. He was not happy in the least. I told him to jut try to think of something to write so he could just get it over with as soon as we got home. He stared out the window as though he’d not heard me at all. And then, just as we were leaving the parking lot, I heard him mutter, “I hate school.” Now how is the mother of a kindergarten supposed to respond to such a statement? I asked a question. “Why do you say that?” Without breaking his stare out the window, he grumbled, “Because it’s a sentence.”

This child who’d previously been simply thrilled to start school, had done a 180. I talked to his teacher; she said she didn’t see anything wrong, and besides, she had enough work to do with the kids who were struggling. I talked to the principal – hoping maybe she’d offer to let him attend later-grade academics in the afternoon. She made some suggestions to the teacher, who enriched the lessons a bit and moved a bully off his table, and I backed off and started registering for charter schools. Ethan, meanwhile, became less and less enchanted with learning.

Until we got this laptop.

It’s small, it’s light. And its cheap. Ubuntu, if you haven’t heard, is a slick little version of Linux that installs fast, runs well, is easy to use, and doesn’t cost a dime. Plus you’ve got open source alternatives for most software you’d need on a windows or mac anyway. You can find out a bit more about ubuntu on Zareason’s video page. And you don’t even need a new computer. I plan on formatting my desktop for this. Let me know if you’d like the install CD and I’ll happily — and legally — make you a copy.

I’d originally bargained with Zareason for a desktop, and when they offered a laptop, I was going to use the smaller lighter one to make getting around town a bit easier while working. But the kids fell in love. It started with the open source version of Othello, and Ethan’s finding that it was actually pretty hard to beat. Then he found the other games. Then he found how to make new documents and started writing little documents, like, “Ethans Favorite Foods” and “The cost of a Wii” which he plans on turning into a webpage . He found the Ubuntu version of ‘calc’ to be terribly exciting — Friday he figured out that 11,111 multiplied by itself equals 123,454,321 — “It’s a Palindrome!” We found an online kids dictionary that will let you search phonetically, and an online typing tutor. When Ethan called me in last night to show how he’d “Kicked Can” on Othello, I knew I had my son back.

kicking can on lagno
kicking can on lagno

And if Ethan’s not using the laptop, my sweet little Mary is. They’re both loving learning again, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

What a coincidence that I met first met Cathy, one of the founders of Zareason, when we were working together on a learning-portal project for the One Hundred Dollar Laptop Project “OLPC” (One Laptop per Child). At the time, I thought it was a great idea, but I can’t say I was truly converted to the idea till now. And while I’m not up anymore on how the OLPC project is going, I do know Asus will sell a sweet little system this fall that runs roughly $200 which I think Zareason will be distributing if all goes well. Cheaper than a gaming console — and oh what fun.

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