Wednesday 18 December 2013

A New Approach to the Missions?

By Artur Suski, S.J.

On Monday of this week, I came upon a very inspiring article in the Toronto Star: “Good news from Canada's aboriginal communities” by Carol Goar. It is about a very ambitious project wherein the mission is to supply laptops to aboriginal children. It has been quite successful. “Since its founding in 2010, it has distributed 3,800 of the tough little computers,” writes Goar. But that’s not all; they’re not just on a mission to give out laptops to kids.

There is a whole program set up around this initiative. Goar continues: “The computers, worth $235 apiece, come fully loaded with high-definition video, YouTube streaming, 60 literacy programs, a physical fitness app, a nutrition app, a financial skills app, math games, activities that help kids cope with bullying, alcohol, solvents, family violence, drugs and depression and 25 books written by First Nation, Métis, and Inuit authors in aboriginal languages.” That’s pretty impressive, if you ask me! The plan is to help kids grow in all aspects.

The program is very successful, and it hinges on the training of the teacher. Teachers are first given seminars on how to use the laptops; once the teachers are well instructed, they then effectively teach the students how to use the apps and other functions. The laptops provide the kids with a powerful tool that has the potential to help them develop their intellectual skills as well as provide them with ways to deal with all sorts of problems.

“So far, 13 aboriginal schools have received computers and the training. Next year five more will be added. Sixty are on the waiting list.” There’s something very creative about this program, as it appears to be bearing much fruit and catching fire.

After reading this article and discussing it with a Jesuit in my community, we thought it would be a great idea to use this brilliant project in our Jesuit missions up in northern Ontario with the aboriginal communities. The sad reality of the past few decades is that the missions in the north have been dwindling down. There are fewer missionaries and decreased attendance. Another challenge is the fact that the faith is often not passed on to the children. This brilliant plan would perhaps rekindle some interest in the Christian faith and reach out to the younger generations – to people that normally would not have come in contact with the Good News. I can envision tech-savvy Jesuits going off with their laptops to teach at these northern schools or pastoral centres.

The interactive laptop in the context of faith formation would definitely help introduce children to the faith because the kids, as part of their classroom exercises, would each actively interact with the faith-formation material on their personal laptop. They would also bring them home and continue their learning experience there. The advantage of this system over existing religion courses is that it has the potential to be fun and stimulating, while educative at the same time. A similar strategy is used to teach languages. Recently there has been lots of hype around an initiative to teach children foreign languages by playing video games. Often we associate the study of religion at schools with ‘boring’, ‘dull’, or ‘cheesy’. It’s time to change that.

Goar states that “the scope for creativity is almost limitless.” This is true. Imagine all the creative ways that one could teach catechism, Bible study, etc. Imagine interactive apps that would help children learn Christian morality through the use of New Testament parables, for example. Or apps that teach them about the faith with music. Is this simply wishful thinking, a kind of dreaming out loud? Perhaps it is, but maybe some well-to-do benefactor will read this and be interested in sponsoring such an initiative. Who knows? After all, “the wind blows where it pleases” (Jn 3:8).

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