The toys and cartoons on the screen don’t go together like the pencil and the notebook do. But when Carlitos interacts with his iPad, he learns by playing. “Find me a Plim Plim video on vowels, please,” the boy asks YouTube, speaking to Siri, the virtual assistant on the Apple tablet.
Carlitos, a pseudonym, speaks formally to the voice that responds from the device that the Department of Education (DE) gave him in December, at the end of the first semester of the academic year. He is sitting at the dining room table, which is also the desk, part of the kitchen and even the closet that is missing from this small house in Río Piedras, a San Juan neighborhood.
“Can you find me the Plim Plim con la Vaca Lola song?,” he says, speaking to Siri, which exposes the scope of artificial intelligence during the pandemic in a Puerto Rico where children like Carlitos have been waiting for more than a year to go back to learning in the classroom.
He is five years old and although he should be in kindergarten, he doesn’t know what a school is. He started connecting to his virtual classes a few weeks ago, after being unable to do so during the first semester because he had no help. His parents cannot read or write. They don’t know how to use the iPad or the cell phone. Although email and WhatsApp notifications ring every week, announcing assignments and instructions sent by teachers, “the child is the technology expert,” his mother says. “He learns by himself and quickly, because he’s smart.”
Plim Plim, an animated cartoon clown, plays the role of an undercover teacher within these four walls. Nobody here knows it, but Plim Plim teaches colors, numbers and letters, while in his world, Carlitos only has fun dancing and singing the children’s songs that put him to the test without him being aware.
A text message comes in from the English teacher: “I have not received the child’s work. This is affecting him. If you send in the assignments maybe he won’t fail. With 60% of the work turned in, the child will pass.” “Seek help. You have the modules. I can’t go to your house,” the teacher adds. Carlitos’ mother does not understand all the messages that continually arrive on her cell phone, but she takes the time to respond to them with an automatic message that says “Ok.” With help from her 12-year-old niece, she writes “we don’t know English.”
It is a family from the Dominican Republic. One of the thousands that are trying to combine the struggle to legally establish themselves on the island with the circumstances imposed by COVID-19 more than a year after the pandemic was declared.
“The other day I was told that the child is hyperactive, because he doesn’t pay attention. He doesn’t sit still,” the mother says, while Carlitos sings with Plim Plim. In less than a month, the boy learned vowels and colors by skipping and jumping with his tablet. The teacher plans to make a referral to the social worker about the child’s “condition,” even though she has never seen him in person or been here, at his home. Carlitos has not set foot in the classroom or met his classmates. In February, for example, he turned on the iPad camera and when he saw himself on the screen, he asked mom if it was him. He took a selfie and was talking about the photo until March.
Carlitos has no neighbors his age. He lives in front of a busy public road in San Juan. During the pandemic, he has been indoors most of the time. Right here, at the dining room table. In the kitchen. Just steps from the sink and next to the fridge. The other option he has is to spend his days in his room. The last thing Carlitos wants — his mother says — is to be in bed when the tablet is charged or when he can entertain himself watching what’s cooking on the stove or waiting for his father to walk through the door after the end of his workday, which usually begins before the child wakes up. For Carlitos, that interaction is an event.
I went back to Carlitos’ house after a couple of virtual meetings. He meets me at the gate. He wants to welcome me, “because that’s important” and “today is another day, another visit,” he says seriously, as if surprised that I don’t understand his gesture. I sit at the dining room table, at his desk, and he offers me cookies. “Do you want some, teacher? Have you eaten?”. Those questions never fail when I visit him after four in the afternoon.
He expresses thoughts, ideas, and feelings aloud and in complete sentences. He communicates with non-verbal language. He associates the relationship between some letters and their sounds. He picks up vocabulary through songs and games. And he recognizes technology as a means of solving problems. In short, he responds positively in the context of the standards and expectations of kindergarten, a stage that until November registered the highest school dropout rate (5.26%) at the primary level in Puerto Rico, excluding pre-kindergarten. Curiously, there are more students in senior year in high school than in kindergarten and Carlitos is one of a little more than 18,800 children that make up that second group on the island.
Messages from the English teacher have been coming in on the phone all semester. “You have to submit the assignment with your full name,” according to some of the instructions that are combined with the failure warnings on the cell phone.
April is not over, and May is still ahead. “When you can, call me on the camera, teacher,” is the last voice message that Carlitos sent through WhatsApp. He did three assignments without help.
There are two dogs fighting in front of the driveway. Carlitos opens his eyes and drops his assignment on the wooden table, which shakes for almost no reason. He stands up and reflects in front of the gate, looking out into the street with the attitude of an older man. “I also misbehave sometimes, but I’m a good boy.” He sits. The dogs bark and he laughs. He takes the pencil and before trying to write the letter “A” he looks at the dogs again and assures me that “they’re hungry.” The fight is over garbage.
He picks up the scissors. It is a tool that he has never used, but in a matter of nothing he masters it. He cuts out pictures from an assignment. The cuts are irregular, but it doesn’t matter, what counts is the intention of cutting out the drawings that will let him put together the life cycle of the frogs. His favorite toy is a stuffed frog. “Look Ma. I’m doing it all by myself,” he speaks out releasing a thought that has been kept in for a long time. “You see, my child, that you’re brilliant,” replies the proud mother who is right next to him, insisting on the ability of the youngest of her children, the only one who still lives in the house. “They tell me that this boy is smart, that what he needs is help.”
Carlitos meets me up on his bike. “The teacher’s here,” he yelled to his mother from the small driveway of his house. He still uses training wheels. He got off the bike and raced inside the house. He reached for the tablet, turned it on, and sat down at the table, ready to begin our session. We cut out colored cardboard. He identified them all by name: the red one, the blue one, the green one, and the yellow one. Then the vowels came out almost perfect. He forgot the U. We discussed two stories. The first was about Pollito Benito. Carlitos never understood why Pollito Benito said the sky was falling. It was an exercise in understanding and analysis. Carlitos still can’t read. That will take time. But we’re getting there. We discussed the second story, the one about the three goats and the ogre on the bridge. For Carlitos it wasn’t right that the two little goats told the ogre to eat the older brother. He reasoned.
Today’s meeting was virtual. However, once we connected and began to review what we had worked on last week, Carlitos accidentally pressed the button that ends the video call and in the process of recovering the connection, he also closed the document where we had written down the link to begin our sessions. We then connected by phone and worked on some exercises, like dictating vowels and discussing colors in the context of his house and his yard. Tomorrow we have to meet in person to reactivate the link of our virtual meetings and put it somewhere that makes it easier for the child to identify it quickly.
I arrived at Carlitos’ house and we reactivated the virtual connection. I brought him a board game to apply his knowledge of colors and numbers. The game consists of moving red, blue, yellow and green tiles according to the number that comes up by throwing the dice. At first, it was a challenge for Carlitos to understand the dynamics of the game, but he kept up, to the point that he was able to identify numbers and move the pieces according to the points that came up on the dice.
We see each other every week. Once, twice, three times. Whenever we can. We met because a friend introduced us and from that moment on when I instantly knew I wanted to offer him support, I have realized that I learn more from Carlitos than him from me. After 10 meetings, he connects by himself to his classes and gives me instructions on how to speak to Siri. Although he calls me “teacher,” he also calls me “friend” when he takes the lead in our discussions and is wearing his Spiderman face mask. That happens very often.
We reconnected virtually. Carlitos was very happy because he had managed to activate the video call without help. He was very chatty. He told me that he loves milk and Quick and he asked me to share videos about the life cycle of octopuses and sharks. “I drink chocolate milk, teacher. Do you see that little yellow box there? That’s mine and it tastes good with milk,” he said. “Teacher, can you look for a video about octopuses? Teacher, and then one about sharks. I like wolves.”
We reviewed the Plim Plim educational videos: we sang the vowels, the numbers from one to 10 and the colors. He likes stories very much, but today he asked to hear only about animals. We watched an interactive video about the animals on a farm and ended up analyzing Atención Atención’s “Canción del Sapo” song. Carlitos identified some domestic animals, such as the dog, the cat, and had a very particular fixation with chickens. “Teacher, I eat chickens,” he warned worriedly during the discussion about the farm. “I really like chicken with plantains,” he added before laughing.
He’s with his cousin, who has been supporting him for a few days with piled-up homework from school. I discovered that Carlitos calls his cousin “sister,” whom I met the first day I visited the home. There is a manila envelope full of papers right next to the box of macadamia cookies. These are Carlitos’ assignments, accumulated since August. He’s barely done 10 of them. “Do we do them? Can we finish them all today?” He asks, as if waiting for the answer he already knows. The 12-year-old girl told me that Carlitos must finish the assignments to guarantee his enrollment in first grade starting in August. “You have to help him with the assignments, because there are many of them,” she said.
Mom was cooking. We completed three assignments that called for cutting out pictures of animals and dividing them into two groups: domestic and wild. To apply what we have learned in prior sessions, we used construction paper, so that Carlitos could identify the colors and apply his knowledge. Everything flowed very well. Carlitos has already mastered the scissors. After I left, he sent me an assignment on WhatsApp that he did without help “and without making mistakes, teacher.”
Carlitos’ teacher now thinks that the boy has the necessary abilities to move on to first grade in August. She acknowledges his progress; despite the few virtual meetings he has connected to during the semester. The mother went to school and enrolled the child for the upcoming school year.
As of November of last year, of the 12,454 students who were expected and did not show up for their classes, 6,812 were at the elementary level. As if that weren’t enough, between August and December 2020 — the semester when Carlitos began his academic career in kindergarten — 1,584 student referrals were made specifically to the Department of the Family. This number contrasts with the 909 students referred to that agency between August and December 2019. The referrals are for emotional or behavioral situations, inappropriate interpersonal relationships, home environment, behavior related to sexuality, abuse, risk indicators for dropping out of school, and behaviors associated with substance abuse.