Buried Treasure: Last Class Observation

The first time I went to Yolande’s 5th grade classroom at the Catholic school, something strange happened. The sister introduced me and said I was there to observe her lesson, and she commented, “But I’m supposed to be done at noon.” Time has been a constant point of confusion for me. The way I originally understood it, school starts at 8 and goes until 1. But, it’s actually 8:30, and no real teaching happens until 9, at least in some classrooms. Then, at 10:30, they have recess and lunch, which is supposed to take 30 minutes but often takes 45 (they leave earlier than 10:30 and come back later than 11). And they leave at 12 or 12:30, instead of 1. The schedule might be shifting because of exams, of course. But even if they’re doing the full 8 until 1 with only a 30 minute break, that’s still only four and a half hours in a classroom. Here in the U.S., we manage 6 or more. Of course, more time sitting in a seat doesn’t guarantee more skills when you walk out, and in other countries they spend less time in school but still get good results.

Anyway, I told Yolande that I would just come by another time once I realized she hadn’t planned a lesson for the last hour of a typical school day. The second time I came, she had me sit down in the back of the room, in front of a table. The table had a chair behind it, but she got me a chair so I could sit in front of the people.

The class had 30 students, and only six of them were boys. They were doing a “Creole Communication” lesson. The teacher started out by writing the objective on the board.

Then, she had the kids open to a page in their reader. She asked them to tell her what they saw in the picture. Kids started shouting out answers, and she told them to raise their hand.

A man was sitting in a bed in the picture. The teacher asked “Is he sleeping?” The man wasn’t. The class concluded that meant he was sick.
After that introduction, the class was supposed to read the text silently, in their head. She told them to pay attention, because she was going to ask questions afterward.

Here’s the story. Just before he dies, a father tells his sons not to sell the land. Apparently, there’s a treasure buried underneath, and the more they plant the better chance they’ll have of finding it (I don’t see why they have to plant instead of just digging, but okay). The sons never find the treasure, but they make a lot of money because their garden is really profitable.

After a few minutes, the teacher asked, “Who can explain to me what they just read?” One girl stood up and started, but her explanation was too long. The teacher told her “You should summarize. You should understand and explain.” One boy stood up and answered, and his answer was more acceptable. The teacher asked, “Did anyone remember something else?” to prompt the students to add something, but no one had anything to add.

The teacher moved on and told the students that the moral of the story had to do with the importance of knowing how to work the land. “Working the land leads to treasure.” Once again, I found myself wondering what the motivation was for teaching kids this in school. Isn’t the whole point of getting an education so that you can have a better life than your parents? I get that the principle of working hard doesn’t apply only to farming, but that’s not how the teacher presented it in class, and I’m not sure how it was intended to come across anyway.

She chose a student who started to read the passage to them, and then another wrapped it up. Finally, everyone read together, chanting in rhythm.
Then, they got out notebooks and answered questions. The kids had the questions in their textbooks, but the teacher copied out each question on the board anyway. The questions related to basic comprehension of the story.

A few of the kids started writing responses immediately, but most didn’t. Some were looking at the text to find the answer. Others didn’t even seem to be trying. The teacher told them to start searching. She also told the class not to write the objective that she’d put on the board above the actual lesson itself. She told them that she’d written a longer objective this time just for my benefit, and they didn’t need it.

The teacher let the kids continue writing and stepped out of the classroom to talk to some other teachers. Then she came back in. “Are we all done?” The majority of the kids said yes, but some said no loudly. She moved on anyway. “Who wants to answer the questions?”

A girl went up front to write on the board. She wrote something wrong, so the teacher said, “Someone who didn’t write that, come up and let’s correct it together.” The class recited the correct answer, while the boy wrote on the board.

The teacher started walking around to look at individual notebooks. Not all the kids had the answers written down, and she told them to start copying what was on the board so they’d be able to look at them at home.

The teacher decided to have the kids read the story one last time, and they did the same rhythmic recitation that I’ve grown accustomed to hearing. I swear, it sounds exactly like the robotic voice that the computers have installed for reading text.

After that, the teacher said she had a homework assignment for the kids. She asked them, “Do we know a person who has died?” Some of the kids said no at first, but she added on that it could be anyone – a relative, a friend, or just someone who lives in their neighborhood. The teacher told them to write about that person. The kids asked, “In Creole?”

I think the writing prompt may have come from yesterday’s workshop. We read a story about a girl giving a mango to her grandfather once he got old and sick, because he always gave them to her when she was young and now he needed someone to take care of him just like he took care of her. I told the teachers that a good writing prompt based on the story is “Write about someone in your life who was important to you.” It looks like the teacher took that and put her own spin on it. I would never think to ask kids to talk about someone who had died, but apparently in her mind it didn’t seem to be too much of an issue.

The teacher wrote the directions on the board. The directions read “Write a story about someone who know at hour house.” I don’t know whether she left out the dead part intentionally or not. She misspelled the word “tèks”, writing “tèsk” instead. At the end of the lesson, she asked everyone whether they were satisfied, and they said yes.

Next, I went to Bernadette’s school and sat in on Jonas’s third grade class. There were a total of 60 students: 33 girls and 27 boys. He had written numbers in different colors on the board:

3 x 10 =
3 x 100 =
3 x 1000 =

Each zero was written in yellow instead of white. Jonas asked a student to read the equations for him. Some of the students were distracted, so he had them clap.
Then, he started asking questions. The kids in the back raised their hands more. The gist of the lesson was, “What happens when you multiply a number by 10?” Some of the students started to realize that it means you add on a zero. Jonas walked them through the other examples, patiently asking, “Who can tell me what result this will give?”

After a few more tries and examples, the students started getting the hang of it, correctly identifying 600 as the result of 6 and 100. Then Jonas started calling on individual students. Whenever he gave one a problem, they would have to talk fast before the others managed to shout out the answer. Some of the kids started standing up in order to better compete for first to respond.

One girl raised her hand. “Teacher, I don’t understand.” The teacher asked, “Why can’t you understand?” and some of the kids started injecting comments. I wanted to hold up my two hands in front of the girl and tell her, “A long time ago, some people decided that once you get to ten you’re supposed to start over again, maybe because we have ten fingers.”

The teacher started walking through more examples. He had kids come up, urging them to jot down the answer quickly so the others could take their turn – everybody kept moving. He paid special attention to the girl who didn’t understand, calling on her several times. When she came up to consider something on the board, he put his hand on her shoulder.

Then, they did one last run-through with the whole class at once. The kids slipped up for a moment on 10 x 1000, saying 1000 at first. None of the other examples had more than three zeroes. Then, someone correctly realized that it was 10,000.

After erasing the objective from the board, indicating the start of a new lesson, the teacher still kept calling on random kids to give him answers. The kids asked whether they should take out notebooks to do some practice problems, and at first he said they didn’t need the notebooks. Then he asked whether they wanted to use them, and they said yes, so he had them get them out. Some of the kids came up front to grab them out of a backpack on the table instead of their bags at their seats.

Jonas wrote out some more practice problems, and then decided. “Let’s do this on the board so we can do it faster.” One of the kids who came up wrote down something wrong. The class responded “Woy” (Uh-oh) and someone said “That’s not it, teacher.”

After that last lightning round, the class was more subdued, and Jonas was ready to switch to the next topic. He apologized to me for saying some things in French, but I told him I’d been able to understand it, and it seemed like the kids were able to understand too.


The other day, two members of my team, Aidan and Zhane, arrived. You can expect to be seeing a lot more photos and maybe some guest posts from now on as they help me document what’s going on. I wanted to give them a chance to see a Haitian classroom in action, so we went to the Catholic school and did an observation even though it was the second-to-last day of classes and they were mostly doing review in between exams instead of any actual lessons.

The classroom we visited was 6th graders. There were 65 of them, and 42 were girls. Not everyone was wearing uniforms because it wasn’t a real day of school. The students were arranged by height, with smaller boys sitting in the front and then tall girls in the back. Only the front and the middle of the room were answering the teacher’s questions. The others were chatting quietly, zoning out, or watching but not participating. The board at the front of the room had a raised platform below it, allowing the teacher to stand and be seen by the whole class, and allowing the students to reach higher up on the board.

The teacher had written some four digit numbers on the board, and the kids had tried to put them into Roman numerals in their notebooks. Now, he was calling students up to write the answers on the board. The first girl got it wrong, prompting him to ask the class “Do you agree with her?” The second was also a little off. Finally, the third got it right, and received applause and a “Ca va” (“That’s fine”) from the teacher.

The teacher went on to explain how Roman numerals work: when you have a larger letter coming after a small letter, it means you’re subtracting the large one from the small one. He did the second problem on the board for them, then asked someone to come up and repeat his work.

The boy who came up was overconfident. Instead of copying from the teacher, he erased the teacher’s work, prompting the class to laugh. He put something up on the board, but it was wrong. The teacher asked “Is what he had good?” and the class replied that it wasn’t.

A girl came up to fix his work. The teacher told her to “Do it faster” and commented “We can’t hear what you said” when she was explaining it. The girl got it wrong, and a boy came up. The teacher had been hanging in the back, but he moved to the front of the room to help out. The boy didn’t seem to be doing it right, but the teacher wouldn’t let the class cut him off when the other students realized he was making a mistake. He said, “Let him do it. If it’s not good, let’s see what he does.” When the kid arrived at the final answer and realized he’d done something wrong, he wrote his answer down anyway (it was off by 3) and everyone laughed.

Someone else came up, and this time they got the right answer. Everyone clapped. Then the teacher came up and started tapping on the board with a stick, walking them through the process. The kid who had gotten it right had to stand at the front during this whole explanation.

Finally the kid was allowed to sit down and another came up to do the third problem (by now, it’s been 25 minutes and we’ve gotten through only two problems). The kid started writing the number in the (number)(number – number)(number) format, but the teacher told him to write it in Roman numerals first. You only use the (number)(number-number)(number) method to check your answer, not to arrive at the answer.

The kid got to the right answer, but he didn’t write it the way the teacher preferred. The teacher explained that “What he put is good, but he didn’t go on the right path.” They walked through the whole explanation again.

Then, it was time for recess, and everyone packed up.

Even More Class Observations

Yesterday, I visited the 4th graders and the 6th graders at EFACAP, the last two grades I had on my plate at that school.

There were 49 4th graders, most of the girls (30 girls and 19 boys). They were starting a lesson on Creole reading when I walked in . First, the teacher reminded the students of the rules they’re supposed to follow: be quiet, follow the lesson, and don’t misbehave. Then, she asked the students what song they wanted to sing. Some suggested the “Welcome” song, but since I’d already been introduced and seated the teacher had them do “Things that Have Wings Fly” instead. The song involved a lot of jumping, clapping, and shouting, and everyone clearly enjoyed it.

After the song, the kids turned their attention to the text on the board. The teacher told them they had five minutes to read with “with your eyes” (silently). The text was three paragraphs about the water cycle, introducing the concept of evaporation, moving on to the clouds, and briefly touching on underground water sources towards the very end.

Once everyone was done reading, the teacher told them she was going to ask some questions to “verify that you read it.” First, she asked “What does riverwater do when the sun dries it?” One student correctly answered “It goes up to the sky.” That was the correct answer; after that the teacher asked where the student had found the answer. Everyone said “the second paragraph” and she called one student up to touch it on the board.

Next, the teacher asked everyone here the title was. It was too high for the person who came up to touch it, but it was clear that they knew what they were pointing at. The question “How many paragraphs do you see?” was a little trickier. Earlier, when they said the answer was in the second paragraph, she didn’t correct them, even though it was actually in the third paragraph. Plus, the concept of paragraphs was a little confusing because the information was in two columns (the board’s not tall enough to do the whole thing straight down) and the second paragraph was split between the columns. Also, the first paragraph was only one sentence long, offering an introduction to the passage.

After clarifying that there were, in fact, three paragraphs, the teacher asked the class to identify where the first paragraph starts. This time, they correctly recognized that a “blank space” (indent) is the thing you’re supposed to be looking for. The teacher explained that the blank space is called “alineya” and wrote it on the board.

Next, she read the text out loud for everyone once. Then, she asked for a volunteer who could “read the same way.” She announced that she would choose a boy. One of the boys stood up and started off confidently, but he stumbled over a word and skipped a line, losing his place. The teacher cut him off and asked the class “Did he start off the same way as me?” The class answered “no”, and the teacher said she was going to choose a girl this time, stating that a girl would be able to read the same as her because they’re both girls.

The girl did better, making it most of the way through. The teacher only had one mistake to point out: the girl hadn’t paused long enough on one of the commas. Then, the teacher announced that she needed “an even better reader.” This time, she let the girl go all the way through. But, at the end, when she asked the class “did she read well?” the answer was no. According to the students, the girl had been “too shy” – she read too slowly, and she didn’t read loud enough.

The teacher also corrected the girl’s pronunciation of some words. The girl had read the nasal vowels in “andedan” and “enpe” with a French pronunciation. The teacher had the whole class practice reading them with a Creole pronunciation, reminding everyone that “We don’t close our mouth when we’re reading Creole.”

Then, the class as a whole had to read the whole passage. They made a few minor mistakes. For example, some kids read “after a little time” instead of “after a time” because you hear “little time” more frequently when people are talking. There was one section with three elements strung together by commas – the other girl messed up there earlier. When the class as a whole messed up again, I took a closer look. The section went “water vapor, clouds, and it goes.” I could see how it would be confusing. The first two parts are nouns, and then all of a sudden it transitions to a sentence with a verb.

The teacher focused her attention on making sure the kids paused properly at the periods, using her stick and reading through the last paragraph herself to show them what she meant. Then, she asked a row to read through the first paragraph. The first row, where almost all the guys in the class were sitting, got off easy – the first paragraph was much shorter.

Next, she told the first row that she would point to individual words and call on individual students to read them. One of the boys messed up by reading “water vapor” instead of just “water” when she pointed to water.

The second row was responsible for the second paragraph. This time, the activity for individual students consisted of erasing one or two words from the section and calling up students to write. She erased the word “disappear” and asked a girl to come up and rewrite it. But, the girl forgot which way the accent went, so the teacher called up someone else to write the word again andfix it.

The third row had to come up and write a whole sentence. The sentence was “The ground receives all the water that it lost.” The student she called up to do it couldn’t remember the whole thing, so the teacher had the class say it out loud for him. But, when he wrote the last words, he spelled it “pediya” instead of “pedi a.” One kid burst out “It’s not like that, no!” The teacher called on another kid (not the outburster) to come up and correct the phrase. They were supposed to underline the previous student’s mistakes and then write the phrase again.

Once the second student had finished writing the correction, the teacher said “We’ll say ‘yes’ but we won’t clap our hands.” The student had correctly fixed the other’s mistakes, but they had left out a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and the spaces in between their words weren’t big enough.

The teacher finished up the lesson by asking students to stand up and read individual sections, alternating between boys and girls and then individual students.

After that, I went on to the 6th graders. There were only 27 of them. The teacher asked me whether I wanted to see a Haitian Creole reading activity; I told him to do whatever he wanted but that’s what they ended up doing. There were only students in this class; I’m guessing a lot drop out before this point.

The teacher got the kids’ attention by telling them “If you like to work, stand up” and having them sit down and stand up several times. Then, he had the kids get out their textbooks. There were three kids to a bench, and each bench had one copy of the book that the kids all shared. First, the teacher asked them to look at the book and talk about what they saw. Then, he had them read the story, but it was one and a half full-sized pages with no pictures. No one had a chance to get all the way through it. That was evident, because when the teacher asked “What characters are they talking about?” not everyone understood the relationship between the main character (Bouki) and the woman he was talking to (his wife).

The teacher called on a girl to start reading the story to the class. It opens with a conversation between Bouki and his wife, and you’ve got to put lots of expression in. The girl did a good job, correctly articulating words like “hen” (it translates to: “Huh?!”). Once she’d gotten through the whole thing, the teacher had different rows read different parts. One row only had five boys in it, but they still had to read.

The story itself was modeled after Bouki and Malis, and like many Haitian stories (and good stories in general) it had multiple layers. Bouki’s the dumb one, and Malis is the trickster (yep, his name is supposed to resemble “Malice”). The story opens with Bouki running to tell his wife that their cousin is getting married. The wife doesn’t understand why he’s so stunned about the news: “She’s young, she’s pretty, it’s natural that she’d find a man one day.” Then she finds out that this just isn’t any man – it’s the deputy of Leogane. The wife’s impressed, but when Bouki announces that they have been invited to the ceremony, she says: “Of course. You’re her cousin.” Then, Bouki reveals that the president himself is going to be at the ceremony, and even his wife starts wondering what clothes to wear. After all, “you never know.” If they can impress some of the important people at this wedding, Bouki could end up with a good job.

They pick out the best clothes they can find from the catalog, and spend a lot of money on them. The day of the wedding, Bouki lays out his clothes on the bed and goes to get ready. But when he returns, the clothes are gone. Someone has stolen them. He has to wear his old suit, and he’s too ashamed at the wedding to talk to anybody important.

Meanwhile, his nephew, Malis, is dressed to the nines and is making the rounds with everyone. At one point, Bouki gets close enough to see exactly what he’s wearing, and he’s shocked. Malis is wearing his clothes. When Bouki confronts him, Malis explains that he stopped by to borrow the clothes, couldn’t find Bouki, saw them lying on the bed, and borrowed them anyway because he knew Bouki wouldn’t have a problem with it.

Bouki has a few choice words to say under his breath about that. But, he concludes in the last sentence of the story, there’s one thing you have to admit about Malis: no matter what, he always tells the truth.

I didn’t quite know what to think of the story and its presence in a government-issued textbook. On one hand, there’s the emphasis that politicians are very important people. The position “depite” is sort of equivalent to a congressperson here: they’re elected from a local area to serve in Parliament and pass laws. The fact that the president himself went to wedding of one made me wonder whether they’re even more important than that, more than I realized. My community partner here and the woman I stay with, Bernadette, is running for deputy. Should I be treating it like a bigger deal than it is, even though I’m already treating it like a big deal? Then again, Leogane is closer to the capital, and it’s a more urban area, so maybe the guy coming from there would naturally get more attention. Plus, in the end, it’s just a story.

And even though they’re emphasizing that politicians are important, at the same time they’re blatantly stating that if you have family connections and you dress nice at the wedding you can get a job, whether you deserve it or not – outright nepotism. Or maybe they’re not stating that. Maybe the whole point of the story is that the Bouki was foolish enough to invest all his money in a nice suit, thinking it would get him somewhere, instead of just working hard. But if the elites don’t want the peasants to aspire to be like them, what do they want them to aspire to? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question.

All that was enough to make me interested in looking up the author. Her name is Odette Ray Fonbrun, and she came from one of Haiti’s prominent families but lived in exile during the dictatorship years. She was a constant advocate for education, including the use of Creole in schools. This particular story was translated from her French version, but she has others that were written in Creole.

We didn’t actually talk about any of this in class. The first thing the teacher asked the students was whether there were any words from the passage that confused them. The class volunteered “odasye”, “sekretedeta”, “metdam”, “byen chik”, “katalog”, “and “mes.” “Odasye” translates directly to “audacious”; the kids had difficulty defining it but everyone seemed to know what it meant. “Sekretedeta” means “secretary of state.” No one knew what they actually do; the teacher tried to explain that every minister has one to assist them. “Metdam” is one of the terms Bouki calls Malis after he finds out Malis took his clothes; it has roughly the same meaning as “audacious.” “Byen chik” translates to “very chique” – “chique” is a French term that means cute and fashionable; it describes how Malis looked at the marriage. A “katalog” is a “catalog;” people in this town are more likely to buy their clothes from a heap at a market stall than from a printed catalog, but most people seemed to know what they were. Finally “mes” means “mass,” a Catholic church service. Not everyone knew what it meant because some people in the class are Protestant (there aren’t many people in Haiti who don’t go to church at all – you’re either Catholic or Protestant, and I guess Jehovah’s Witness can be another category by itself). Actually, it seemed like a lot of these words were terms the kids knew or could guess about, but they needed to volunteer something for discussion when the teacher asked what was difficult to understand, so they volunteered these.

After the terms were all defined, the teacher started posing questions – he just read the ones that accompanied the text right below it. Things like “Why did Bouki try to hide during the wedding?” They didn’t get very far through the questions – some of them were really interesting, like “Do you agree that what Malis did was wrong?” Instead, the teacher had some students read sections out loud. He also asked them how they’d feel if they got all their nice stuff ready and then something came along and messed it up. He gave his own example: “A kid could spill sauce all over your nice clothes.” I have no idea whether it actually came from his personal life or not, but it made the students laugh.

After some read-alouds, the teacher asked for volunteers to give a summary of the passage. Some kids started trying to recite it from memory (we’d read it enough times by then) or didn’t start from the beginning. The teacher got frustrated and asked them “Do you understand what I want?” but didn’t really explain why the first kids he called on had gotten it wrong. Finally, one of the girls proceeded to give a long and detailed summary of events, right from the beginning and in her own words. The teacher approved of that, asking the class “What does she deserve?” Apparently, she deserved applause.

By then, the time for reading was up. The teacher told everyone that they’d continue with the questions again next class (Friday, because Thursday was a holiday here).

More Class Observations

At EFACAP, I stopped by the 5th graders. There were 37 students in the class, arranged in rows. There were more girls (23) than boys (14), and the boys had all decided to sit together in one row apart from the girls. The teacher, Madsen, and I had spoken before – he slipped Lydia and I snacks during our first visit. Madsen was the first teacher who didn’t think it was important for me to introduce myself to the students – he wanted me to sit down right away, until I mentioned it. Once those were done, Madsen asked me whether I wanted him to teach a Creole lesson. I was under the impression that all the teachers have a schedule to follow (some of them have it posted on the wall), so I was surprised there was a choice. I told him to just do what he’d normally do, and he went ahead and did Creole.

The lesson’s topic, which Madsen wrote on the board, was to “produce a writing.” The kids sat quietly while Madsen wrote the objective on the board: “after this lesson, the student should be able to produce a narrative text.”

Madsen started out the lesson by asking about informative texts. The students had studied the subject before, and volunteered that an informative text’s purpose is to inform and explain.

Then, Madsen switched veins completely, and asked the kids “What animal backs away from you, even if you try to feed it?” The answer is apparently “frog.” (Haitians have a thing about frogs – lots of people like to kill them. One of the books in our library advises you not to do that because “Frogs are useful” for the environment). Madsen asked the students what noise a frog makes. Cue a room full of croaking.

Madsen started passing out slips of paper with a paragraph printed on them. I got one, too. The kids immediately started reading as soon as they received one – Madsen told them to make sure to read silently, in their heads. After a moment or so he asked “Has everyone finished?” and everyone apparently was.

The story talked about a frog and a lizard. The lizard tries to block the frog from going in the water, but the frog manages to get past and dive down to the bottom. The lizard follows, but it can’t go all the way down. It gets mad, and decides to never go in the water again. The story sounded kind of like some sort of fable or origin tale (“Why Frogs Swim and Lizards Don’t”). When I asked the teacher after class, he told me it came from a larger book of stories in Haitian Creole.

Next, Madsen started asking questions: “When did this action happen?” “What happened to the lizard?” Then he asked for volunteers to read the story again.

After that, they moved on to the purposes of a text: it can tell a story, inform, or explain. The students decided that this text was telling a story. Madsen asked what led them to that conclusion, and someone volunteered “Because they started out ‘one day’.”

There are other ways of introducing a story. You can say “One time” or “Once upon a time”, among others – these things are called “narrative markers” because they alert you that a story’s coming. Madsen explained that stories also have different elements. You need a time and place, characters, events, and decisions. We used the story as an example: “Who were the characters?” “Frog and lizard.”

Madsen announced that it was time for the kids to “imagine a story and write it.” On the board, he wrote “Sora went to EFACAP. She met with the director.” He asked all the kids to finish, announcing “You’ve got three minutes.” Some of the kids said “Woy” when they heard that, which was what I felt like saying, too – it didn’t seem like enough time, and I was pretty sure they’d never done this before.
I didn’t actually check whether it was three minutes, because I was busy talking with the teacher. I wanted to know whether he’d printed out the stories with his own money (it turns out he did).

Madsen asked for volunteers to read their stories, and picked one of the boys. He seemed unsure about whether to go up front, but he ended up just standing where he was sitting. His story had a twist in it. Sora doesn’t go to EFACAP during the day – she shows up in the middle of the night, and the director says “You can sleep here.” That made all the kids laugh. The director decided to freak Sora out in the middle of the night, so he smashed his head against the wall. That made Sora jump, and she decided “I won’t ever come back here again.”

I thought the story was great, and based on all the laughing so did the class. Madsen went through all the elements one by one, and people agreed that the story has a time, a place, characters, events, and decisions.

Madsen called on a girl to read her story. Sora shows up at EFACAP and has a conversation, then heads into a classroom. Madsen and the class decided that it didn’t really qualify as a story, because nothing really happened and there were no decisions.

Next, Madsen asked the kids to write a “Dog and Cat” story – apparently people are really familiar with that idea. Again, everyone had three minutes. This time, I focused on walking around to monitor how things were going. Some kids leaped right into it, putting down sentences on paper. Others were more hesitant. They looked at their friend’s work instead of making their own, they searched for pencils in their bags, or they shifted around in their seats. I realized that the two examples we’d just seen were unusual – most students weren’t actually making much progress on this story activity.

Madsen told the kids that they’d go ahead and read another time. First, he had a question for them. When I’d talked with him earlier, I mentioned that one of the words in the passage we’d read was spelled wrong. It said “bre”, but the correct spelling is “bwe.” The teacher said it wasn’t too important, because the kids can still make meaning out of “bre” based on the context and the fact that pronunciation can vary, just like it does in English. He said for the most part, the kids can recognize “official” spellings vs. an “author’s” spellings. To illustrate this, he asked the kids at the end of class what word had been spelled wrong in the passage. One girl correctly identified “bre” and she received a notebook.

At the end of class, Madsen asked me what my advice was. Apparently, everyone’s been expecting me to immediately follow up with recommendations after these observations. Whoops. In my head, it’s better to get to know people over the course of these workshops instead of dumping my opinions on them right after we’ve just met each other.

So, I told Madsen that the real issue, as far as I see it, is time. Three minutes isn’t long enough to write a story. The strongest students in the class will be able to do it, but everyone else will fiddle around and dawdle because they don’t want their peers to see that they don’t know what to write. You’ve got to give those students extra attention, which translates into either more time or fewer students – with 37 kids, it’s not possible to monitor everyone.

Next, I went over to the third graders. Fritz was working with 51 students. They were starting a grammar lesson, according to the information on the board. Unlike the other teachers, Fritz added in the amount of time he expected the activity to take: 35 minutes.

Fritz called up a boy to the front of the room and asked “Do we know him?” The boy’s name was Edwine. Edwine started singing, and Fritz wrote “Edwine is singing” on the board. Edwine stayed at the front while Fritz went over how to divide that sentence into a predicate and a verb group (I guess in English we do subject and predicate. For this lesson, subject = predicate and predicate = verb group). After going over that a few times, Fritz asked the class “Should I let him sit down now?” and Edwine went back to his seat.

Next, Fritz called up a girl. Again, the class gave her name, and the girl started doing something – dancing. Fritz wrote that she was dancing on the board, and they went through the same process. You figure it out by framing it as a question: WHO is doing WHAT?

Then, Fritz announced “No one’s going to come up anymore.” Instead, he wrote “Sora ap ekri” on the board. The kids were especially loud about volunteering to tackle that one.

After that, everyone was supposed to get out notebooks. While the kids wrote down the date, he wrote a few more example sentences on the board. The kids had three minutes to copy them down and divide them into the parts. As they worked, Fritz warned them not to let other students copy off what they had.

Once a few kids were finished, Fritz checked their work, which of course prompted everyone else to start announcing that they were done and needed their work checked too.

They did one last example to make sure everyone got the concept. Fritz jumped up and down, which made him look ridiculous and delighted everyone. In addition to the “Fritz is jumping” sentence. He told the kids to write down three sentences of their own and break them down for homework – it’s the first time I heard a teacher actually assign homework during class.

After that, Fritz asked one student to explain what they just did. Then, he turned to me, and asked what advice I had for him based on the lesson. This time I was a little better prepared. We got into a long discussion about how grammar as a topic is hard to make interesting. It’s better, I argued, to get kids used to patterns and sentence structures by having them do a lot of reading and writing on their own, instead of dissecting things on the board. The same principle applies to everything – you can try to take a shortcut by memorizing some rules, but if you really want to develop an understanding you’ve just got to practice. After that he wanted to know a little bit more about the laptop program. I gave him the shortened history – One Laptop Per Child delivered the machines, we came in afterwards and decided to provide more support so the schools actually use them, I decided recently that instead of sponsoring after-school programs we should look at how to put laptops to use during the school-day by integrating them into the classroom and the standard curriculum. Fritz approved of all that, and had a lot to say about the potential for a laptop program, if the right structures get put in place.

Classroom Observations Day 3

On Wednesday we returned to the Catholic school and went to the second grade class. Second grade had 48 students and one male teacher, Jean Fritz. They were starting a review of place values and addition when we arrived.

Instead of ignoring us and teaching the class, as the other teachers had done after we introduced ourselves and sat down, the teacher spoke directly to us about what was going on: “The kids have been learning addition and subtraction – they know the numbers, the signs, and how to set up problems.” I was worried he was going to teach the whole lesson like that, but then he wrote an equation on the board (three-digit numbers, in a horizontal line, like this: 456 + 281 =) and called a student up to solve it.

The girl seemed hesitant, but she did fine. First, she put the numbers vertically, one on top of the other, and then she added them, remembering to carry the 1. She recited what she was doing as she was doing it – the teacher probably taught her the exact phrases to use for the explanation, because she said everything like she’d said it before (5 and 8 are 13, put the 3 there and put the 1 there). The teacher told her to “Talk louder” as she solved the problem, but since she made no mistakes he had no other comments. Lydia mentioned that it was the first time someone had been called up to the board to really work through something. Sometimes when they’re doing reading they call kids up to underline certain letters, but she felt like this was giving the students a larger opportunity to contribute. I mentioned that math as a subject lends itself more to practice problems on the board than the others – which is great, even if they’re not doing much beyond working through something the teacher already set up.

The next thing they did was place value. The teacher wrote some three-digit numbers on the board and explained to us (me and Lydia) the concept of breaking them down into the ones, tens, and hundreds place. Again, I was worried he was going to keep on like that, but then he got the class to do some examples out loud together, with him writing the numbers that the class said on the board.

After that, they moved on to something slightly more confusing. The teacher drew a box below the number, and told the class that one triangle represents a hundred. He asked the students how many triangles would be needed to represent the number. I guess it was a good way of visualizing what place values actually mean in a different way, but it seemed to me more like the sort of thing you would introduce when you were presenting the concept, instead of something you would expect them to keep doing even after they understood the idea and were just reviewing. However, it’s possible that I’m overestimating how well students understand this idea even after it’s been presented multiple times in different ways, and the teacher was following what was in the textbook.

Finally, the teacher wrote some three-digit addition problems on the board, and told the class to get out their notebooks and start doing them. Glancing at them, I remembered how much I hated doing them when I was little – that kind of rote busy-work especially gets on my nerves because in my mind it’s unnecessary now that everyone’s walking around with a calculator in their hand (yes, even Haitians have cell phones). I don’t think it helps the kids grasp the math better beyond giving them additional practice at adding numbers, working through a problem patiently, and focusing – all of which are beneficial, but couldn’t we do it in a different way? The computers have games on them, for example, where you’re shooting down meteors, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about.

I’m more interested in something like setting up this information as a word problems. Everyone hates them just as much as busywork, but I think the reasoning is different – they hate them because they actually require you to think, instead of just mindlessly following a process. We asked the teacher whether he actually gives the kids that sort of thing. He had two responses. First, they use it more for something like multiplication (which the second-graders have been exposed to, but won’t really start doing until third grade), because the idea of multiplying can be more difficult to get across without concrete examples. Also, since the kids are only in second grade, the teacher felt that word problems would be too difficult for them to both read and reason through. According to him, they’re not yet at that level, mentally. I can sort of accept that, but then I went on to ask him how long they had been practicing this particular method of doing addition and subtraction. He explained they’ve been doing it since November. Again, I may be underestimating how long it takes the kids to learn this, but I think it makes no sense to keep practicing this without thinking of a way to reframe it, through a word problem or something else. At this point, it seems like they’re just rehearsing, instead of actually learning. Maybe he just wants to make sure their skills are solid before the exam coming up next month, but you can only repeat these lessons so many times before the repetition stops being beneficial.

Once we were done asking the teacher question, we started moving through the room to see how the kids do their work. We were disappointed to notice that even after a few minutes most of the kids had not yet started on the actual math problems – they were too busy painstakingly copying the cursive on the board that explained the lesson’s title, date, and objective. That’s something that happens in U.S. classrooms, too – you want kids to label their work, both to make it easier to grade and also to get them used to following a system. But, it really seemed to be delaying the kids’ actual practice. Also, most of the kids seemed to be at work, but we noticed one boy who didn’t have a pencil or pen, even though he had a notebook. The teacher was standing near him several times and must have seen that the boy hadn’t started because he didn’t have a pencil, but ten minutes passed before the kid was able to start (not because the teacher gave him a pencil, but because he got one from a classmate). Now, we don’t know the story here – maybe the kid had forgotten his pencil ten times in a row, and the teacher told him the next time he came he’d be in big trouble, and this was the big trouble. We didn’t want to ask because it was our first time meeting the teacher, who we’ll be working with for a few weeks, and we didn’t want to make him feel like we were judging him too harshly. But, it’s definitely something I’ll be interested in knowing the full story behind later, because it was sort of a strange scenario to see.

After that, we left the Catholic school and headed up the hill to Bernadette’s school. It’s technically called Ecole Mixte Action Fraternelle, and that’s the name she uses, but most people in the town just call it “Bernadette’s school.” The international orgs working with it call it “AFAL school,” because that’s the name of the women activist group that started it. Bernadette is AFAL’s founder and president, and we first got involved in Lascahobas through the group’s connection with a Virginia church. This is my third time working with Bernadette and her school in Lascahobas, but actually, it was my first time observing classes, because the other two trips took place during vacations (summer and winter).

First, we stopped in with a 1st-grade teacher named Emyann. She was working with 73 students, and they were doing a French reading lesson.

The teacher wrote the letter “c” on the board along with some vowels. We’ve seen this before – it’s the “tying” process that many teachers here use to help students match consonants with vowels to make syllables. The kids had been taught to call the letter c “cuckoo” instead of by its name, maybe because that word helps them remember its sound. They probably know the actual name, but in this exercise they used “cuckoo”, as in: “‘Cuckoo’ tied with ‘a’ makes ‘ca'” and so on for the rest of the vowels.

After the recitation, the teacher started writing some syllables on the board for the kids to practice reading. This class was less disciplined than others we’d been in – they immediately started talking when she turned around. As the kids read through the syllables, I found myself wondering whether they actually know any words with these sounds. These are all French combinations – in Creole many of the vowels are pronounced differently – and since these kids are only first graders they might not know enough words in French to be able to associate a particular sound and letter combination with a word. You can’t use things like A is for Apple, because they might not know the French word for apple.

Anyway, the teacher told the kids to get out their notebooks and start on a writing exercise, which of course I was curious about. She wrote the phrase “La pipe de mon pere” (my father’s pipe) on the board several times, emphasizing the loops in the cursive letters. She read the phrase out loud for them, but did not translate it. Then, the students were supposed to start copying the phrase down on their own sheets of paper, to improve handwriting.

Several raised their hands to announce, “Madam, I don’t have a notebook” and the teacher passed out paper for them to write on. She also told the kids that they should work hard on their writing, in order to impress us, the visitors. Several students took that as an opportunity to get out of their seats and come up to show us their pages. It looked like many of the students were copying word by word (i.e., writing “la” three times in a vertical column) instead of writing the whole phrase out several times. Most of their handwriting was pretty good, especially because they were writing on ordinary lined paper in a fairly small font. But, many of them forgot the accent on “pere” – which means they don’t know the word and the rules of pronunciation well enough to realize that without the accent it’s being spelled wrong. This isn’t like English spelling, where there are multiple ways you might spell a word and only one’s right. In other languages, the sounds are consistent. Sometimes a sound is represented by a letter, and other times it’s a combination of letters, but you’re not going to get two words that are spelled almost the same but pronounced completely differently (like the “ough” sound in tough and through).

It wasn’t clear how many sentences the kids were supposed to do before they were done – some did only three, while others covered the whole page. The teacher asked the class several times whether they were finished, emphasizing each time they said no that they should hurry up – it was clear she wanted to move on to something else. The teacher attempted to walk up and down the roads to monitor the students’ progress, but the chairs and tables were pushed so close together that she actually had very little space to move.

As things were wrapping up, we asked the teacher whether this is the only writing practice students get, and she explained that they also write things down when they have to answer questions about the stories they read. But, they don’t ever do anything original – no one makes up their own stories or tells about something true from their own life. The teacher commented that the kids are really at “too low a level” to be expected to do that.

Next, we went to Ludia’s second-grade classroom. Ludia was one of the teachers who participated in the December workshop, so I knew her already. She had 74 kids in her classroom, and they were working on Creole reading.

First, Ludia took the time to talk to me after my introduction speech, asking “Did you forget me?” Again, I worried that she was going to be more interested in me than teaching her lesson (I always worry when I’m doing classroom observations that I’ll be a distraction). But, then Ludia turned around and started writing the objective on the board. First, she wrote that the subject was “Creole.” Then, after looking at it for a moment, she erased it and put “Kreyol.” (Creole is the French term, whereas Kreyol is how it’s actually spelled in Haitian Creole itself. Technically, creole alone would be incorrect in French – a “creole” is a type of language that emerged from a pidgin, so you’d have to specify “Haitian Creole” just like we do in English). After that interesting start, Ludia pulled a bannann (a banana-like fruit) out of her bag and held it up in front of the class.

Of course, everyone started giggling. Why was the teacher holding up a bannann? Ludia told all the kids to stop laughing and be quiet – she hadn’t asked her question yet. The question ended up being “What do I have here?” Obviously everyone knew what a bannann was – they grow in the area and folks eat them all the time. But, Ludia took the time to ask the question, wait for the kids to raise their hands, and then announce that she was calling on a girl to answer the question – all of that, just to confirm what everyone already knew, that she had a bannann in her hands. After that, she went through the process again, with the same question, this time with a boy. Then she asked a few more people, and then the class as a whole. Finally, everyone was sure that it was a bannann, and we were ready to move on.

Ludia wrote the phrase “Loudia gen yon bannann” on the board. She asked the kids to read the sentence, then she asked them some questions. “Who has the bannann?” “Is this a word or a sentence that I have written here?” “What do people do with bannann?” “Do you cook it like this?”

After that, Ludia announced that she was going to tell the kids a story. She gave them something that sounded like it was from one of the government textbooks, in which the word “ann” was repeated a lot. The kids correctly identified “ann” as the sound that was most emphasized in the passage.

Ludia wrote the word “bannann” on the board and told the kids to listen closely. She said she was going to repeat it three times, then went ahead and said “ban-nann” three times, slowly, with pauses and announcements of what number she was on in between.
Next, she asked the kids “What is the last sound you heard in the word?” She called on several students to anwer. One said “nann.” Other said “n.” Apparently, the correct answer was “ann.”

Ludia shared a few more words with “ann” in them, and wrote some on the board along with some that didn’t. The class read through them as a class, and she also called on individuals. Then, she played the game with them where they’re supposed to clap twice if she says a word with “ann” in it. The kids had a little difficulty with some sounds: “anm”, for example, sounds a little similar.
After that, Ludia had kids take out their notebooks and write down the list of words, underlying the “ann” where it occurred. I noted that the kids were faster than average at taking out their stuff – Ludia did a good job of encouraging this by saying “Be fast.” A kid asked whether they needed to write the date on the page before starting on the exercises, and she told them no. She walked up and down the rows while they worked, and frequently made comments like “Is everyone working?” and “The person who’s standing up, what’s going on? Why aren’t you working” and “I”ll look at everyone’s notebook.” After letting them work for a few minutes, she asked if everyone was done. When some people said they weren’t, she told them they had three minutes left: “It’s 12:11 now, so I’ll give you until 12:14.”

On another note, the “ann” sound is one that trips me up a lot, too, but that might just be because I’m not a native speaker. In Creole, a vowel followed by an “n” becomes nasal – some of the air goes through your nose for the vowel sound, and you don’t really pronounce the “n” sound. When I was learning Creole, someone told me that you can negate that rule by putting a second “n” after it – when you do that, it becomes a normal vowel and a normal “n” sound. That’s the way I thought about it for a long time, until I learned that if you want to negate the nasal vowel rule, you should just put an accent over the vowel – it turns out a, e, and o can all have accents. I’d seen the accents for e and o before, but I didn’t realize a had its own. So, it turns out there’s a subtle difference between vowel+n+n and accented-vowel+n, which I never noticed before because I didn’t know how to look for it.

Anyway, my Creole lesson aside, I’m not sure how important it is for kids to be practicing these sound-recognition skills in second grade. The ability to split a word into its parts and answer questions like “What’s the last sound you hear in the word?” is called “phonemic awareness” and it’s important for learning how to read. But, this is sort of a chicken and egg problem. People rarely talk the way we write words on a page – they blend things together, they drop things off at the end, etc. But once you know how to read, you’re more aware of what sounds you’re supposed to be hearing even if people aren’t actually saying them, so I guess you perceive the pronunciation differently. The problem is, you’ll have a lot of trouble learning how to read if you have trouble breaking down words into their parts. These two things are mutually dependent on each other.

So yes, phonemic awareness is important. But, according to some information I’ve read, even though it’s really important you don’t actually need to spend a lot of classtime on it – the recommendation is actually only six hours or so (well, that’s for American classrooms, but still). I brought this up with Ludia when she asked me towards the end of class what I would change about the lesson. I commented that it was something we’d talk about more as a group during the training sessions, and I’m sure we will. Ludia seemed to think that although the second graders know “an” and “n” already, “ann” is a common pattern and deserves to be taught all on its own even after they’ve grasped the concept of stringing letters together and seem to be having no problems with the basic act of reading by pronouncing written letters correctly. I’ve got my own ideas about that, but it’s really a discussion that we’re all going to have together in order to increase the chances that the teachers will actually follow whatever we come up with. Say what you like about groupthink, but my guess is that if we get a roomful of experienced educators together and each gives their honest input, we’ll come up with something effective. I guess the problem is ensuring honest input.

At the end of the lesson, we asked Ludia whether she had slipped the bannann in her bag that morning in preparation for the lesson or thought of it on the spot. Ludia told us she’d planned everything in advance, and showed us detailed notes that went through step by step what she should write on the board and asked the students. She told us that she’d made up the story with the “ann” sound herself, imitating the style of the passages from the government textbook. She also predetermined what words with “ann” in them she should write on the board, so she wouldn’t have to come up with them on the spot.

Classroom Observations, Day 2

Yesterday, we visited EFACAP, which is the public government school for the area. We visited the first-graders and the second-graders.

The first-grade class was taught by a Marie-Carmelle. The lesson was reading in French – the kids were looking at the “gn” sound. The kids were seated in three rows, with two to three students on most of the benches. Often, girls sat with girls and boys with boys, but a few of the benches were mixed.We stepped in for the last period before recess and lunch, so we weren’t sure how everything was going to go. We also knew this was the largest class out of the three grades we’re working with, with 71 students. However, we needn’t have worried.

Although she was dealing with all those kids all by herself, the teacher did a great job of getting their attention and keeping it. She transitioned into the new activity by telling them “Now we’re going to change to something else – put your hands on the table, please.” Then, they warmed up by reading through letters and syllables that she had written on the boad in different colors. They had a way of associating every letter with a sound by calling it “the man who does an action” – F plays the flute.

The teacher asked if everyone wanted to hear a story. She told them about how she had gone to the market in town and told a kid that she would give him a treat to eat if he successfully identified which sound was most often repeated in a song of hers. The kid didn’t get it right, so she didn’t give him anything. The teacher told all the kids that she believes in them. If they had that opportunity, they wouldn’t have “left hungry.” They would have gotten it right.

She read a short three-sentence story from the book that involved mountains, signs, and swans and walked around the room showing the kids the picture. The name of a character in the story involved the “gn” sound, so the teacher called on several kids to ask “What’s the woman’s name?” and “What sound are we learning again?” before launching into the more written part of the lesson.

The teacher wrote “gn” on the board and drew a series of lines leading from it to a column of French vowels. This is a common way of teaching reading in Haiti – you “tie” consonants with vowels to make syllables. The teacher went through the syllables with the whole class, and then row by row. When they messed up because they weren’t paying attention, she was patient: “Let’s start over.” She also used a short song that ended in “chalalalala” to get the kids focused on her again. Later on in the lesson, she mentioned that preschoolers would need to be taught a certain way, but she expects more from them as first graders.

After working with rows, the teacher called on individual students. When calling on students, she announced each time whether she was going to choose a boy or a girl. When someone got the answer right, the whole class applauded them. The teacher gave the readers advice, like “Arrange your mouth” and “Louder.”

Next, the teacher read a series of words out loud and told the kids to clap twice when they heard the “gn” sound in them. First, they practiced the skill of clapping twice – it was hard for everyone to get their timing right and then stop at two instead of going on to three. The teacher took what seemed like a long time to try to make sure everyone got the claps down. When certain groups made errors multiple times, she commented “we’re not paying attention” and “there are people who don’t respect the rules.” She started calling out individuals and benches, saying “You’re not going to be part of the game” because they weren’t doing the clapping right.

The class did a fairly good job on the clapping activity, only messing up a few times. Then, the teacher told them to pull out their books. The kids who had them got them out pretty fast, because she added a sense of urgency, saying, “Let’s go!” She passed out handwritten sheets with a similar exercise on them to the students who didn’t have books, and she walked down the rows while they were working to monitor their progress.

After class, we congratulated the teacher on a well-taught lesson. She was animated the whole time, and she clearly cares a lot about her students – they can tell, and they respond to her effort by putting in their own. She commented that everyone’s got something to do, and her thing just happens to be education.

After the kids were done eating lunch, we headed over to the second grade class, where they were starting a science lesson. This one had 64 students, 1 teacher, and an assistant. The students were divided into four rows, and again the boys and girls were mixed with two or three to a bench.

First, the teacher had the students sing a song they already knew about whether birds fly in order to get them engaged. Then, she pointed to a bird that had been drawn on the board, and asked the kids to name body parts. Everyone started shouting out at once, but she told them not to do that and started calling on them. Then, she called kids up to touch individual parts.

Once all the parts had been given, she wrote the French names on the board with arrows towards the bird drawing. Most of the words were basically the same, with the possible exception of “wings.” In Creole, you say “zel” but in French it’s “ailes.” It does sound like “zel” when it’s got a “les” in front of it, but it wasn’t clear from the kids’ pronunciation through the rest of the lesson whether they understood that you only put the “z” sound in front if you’re saying “the wings” in French.

After that, the teacher wrote the French words out again in a column and had the kids recite them, beginning with “the parts of a bird’s body are…” in French. Then, she started calling on individual students to recite the same thing. The first few did well, but then the teacher started calling on the weaker students (“You didn’t raise your hand – stand and recite for me). The kids started laughing at each other for making mistakes. The teacher got frustrated when the kids spoke softly: “The way you make noise in the class, why can’t you talk louder when I call on you?”). At one point, she startd banging an end of her pointing stick on the table, and I realized that it could very easily be turned into a weapon if you wanted that.

For the last set of kids, the teacher decided to erase the words she’d written on the board so that students would have to work from memory. They didn’t do too badly, but because they were concentrating harder they forgot things like the intro phrase (“the parts of a bird’s body are”), which the teacher didn’t think was acceptable.

After that, time was up and they needed to move on to the next lesson. The teacher told the kids, “We’ll stop there for the day and we’ll do a cooler lesson next week.”

We hung around for the next subject, which was reading in Creole. The teachers moved us to the front of the room, and seemed to be waiting on us to leave, but once I found out the next lesson would be exactly what we’re doing I decided to stay.

Although these kids are in second grade, they’re still learning some of the more complicated sounds. That day, they were working with “tch”, which you don’t actually see in too many words. I found myself wondering why there’s a whole page for it in the book.

Just like in the other class, the teacher had a passage to read where the “tch” sound is repeated. She launched right into the reading, telling the kids to play close attention. She called on kids to identify the sound that the passage had emphasized, and they didn’t seem to have much trouble – it’s pretty easy to hear. While she moved up and down the rows to talk to kids, her assistant wrote words with “tch” in them on the board.

The assistant directed the class as they read through all the words. Then, she called up individual students to circle the “tch” when it appeared. One girl ran up without being ccalled on, bu the teacher let her anyway. After that, they had a problem of too many students trying to come up at once, and the teacher had to speak up to stop it.

Next, the assistant wrote syllables on the board and had the class read them. Then, she called on students to identify individual syllables. At first, some of them messed up because they thought the point was just to circle “tch” again, instead of listening to what the teacher said and searching for it onthe board. They particularly struggled with “gò” for some reason, maybe because it’s not very common in Haitian Creole. The main teacher advised the assistant after that to only ask the class about syllables that actually had “tch” in them.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked the kids “What did we just do?” When someone said “Creole,” she commented, “But we didn’t do the whole book.” Someone else volunteered “the tch sound,” and that answer was satisfactory. After that, they moved onto a new lesson, and we headed out.

Classroom Observations, Day 1

Today, we went to the Catholic school, St. Gabriel’s, and observed classes for two of the teachers we’ll be working with.

First, we stopped by the first grade classroom. Filomenn was teaching – I know her because she participated in the December workshop. She also had an assistant helping out. Lydia and I counted 46 students divided into three rows: one row of boys, and two of girls. The school is run by nuns, and was originally supposed to be for girls-only. The director, Sister Micheline, explained to me that they’ve taken on a few boys, but they have to keep them separated because they tend to pinch the girls.

All of the children were wearing uniforms, which is the norm here. The girls have their hair done up nice in ribbons, the guys have their hair cut very short and trimmed in neat lines, and everyone’s shoes are shined. Sister Micheline told us that if we come on Friday, we’ll see the kids in shorts instead of skirts and pants, because that’s the day they play sports. We visited the government school last Friday, and noticed that only the preschoolers had opted not to wear their uniforms. The director there explained to us that most of the kids don’t have anything nicer to wear at their houses, so they’re embarrassed to show up to school in their own clothes. That’s why they wear their uniform even if they don’t have to.

The room set-up, with benches in rows, was also very typical. Two to three kids sit to a bench, facing a board at the front of the room. The room is illuminated by light passing through slotted holes in the wall, which also provide ventilation.

The kids had just finished a math lesson about place values when we walked in, and they were starting an exercise in their government-issued textbooks. Each student had their own textbook, so no one had to share. Both teachers walked up and down the rows, assisting as needed. The exercise involved counting objects in rows and writing how many groups of tens and ones there were in appropriate boxes. Most students were not arriving at the answer the way the book seemed to intend – they were counting all the objects one by one, instead of grouping them. Some students seemed confused about how to start, and the teachers gave them special attention to try to explain what to do. The page was full of tasks, but most students seemed to be losing steam after completing the first few. The teachers were still tied up with helping the stragglers, so they weren’t able to prompt the kids to continue or suggest another activity to hold their attention span.

Filomenn stopped a few minutes in and went up to the board to explain something. She drew the box with the tens and the ones place, and explained that when there are three groups of ten and no ones left over, the students need to remember to write a “zero” in the box. Since she framed the mistake as a matter of forgetting to put a zero, I’m not sure she got across the message that the kids needed to focus on the idea of groups when filling out the worksheet – only one of the problems involved the zero, so they could complete the rest without really recognizing the idea of tens and ones. I noticed that the word for “ones” was not very similar to the Haitian Creole word for “one” (she used a word that sounded like “unity” instead), and I wondered if that was throwing the kids off, too.

After a few minutes more on math, Filomenn collected the books. She explained that sometimes they grade the problems together as a class, and sometimes she checks them. We asked whether she divides the kids up based on what scores they regularly get, and she explained that the kids can sit anywhere in the room they want – provided the guys are separate from the girls, and tall people don’t sit in front and block short people’s view. We noticed that there was very little collaboration between the students when doing the assignment (sometimes, people tried to cheat off each other, but no one was helping anyone else), so maybe the idea of grouping wouldn’t be effective without other changes. Filomenn mentioned that they sometimes do group work, when she has materials she wants them to count or handle and doesn’t have enough for each child. But, book work is done individually. The children are also assigned homework pages from the book every night. They are supposed to spend 30 minutes (or less) per subject, so it can be up to 2.5 hours a night. However, that number is a little misleading, because the only reason the assignment would take a student that long would be if they had no idea what they were doing.

For example, the kids get assigned a passage from their reading textbook one or two times a week. After we finished with math, the teachers started checking reading. Theoretically, the rest of the class was supposed to be rehearsing to prepare for their turn while the teachers called students up one by one to read, but the students used the time to chat with one another. The teacher would turn around to tell them to be quiet. Several times, she hit people who came up to ask her a question. Most of the time whoever was reading would keep reading even when it was clear the teacher was not listening – maybe they saw it as an opportunity to get away with making a mistake. The best reader in the class would stop and wait until the teacher turned back around, which I found interesting. Maybe he became the best reader because he’s eager to please and wants to show off.


Most of the students were reading about half a page. Sometimes, the section included a passage with full sentences, but more often they were pronouncing words or even parts of words. Each student was at a different place in the book based on how fast they had moved through it. For example, one student pronounced several words from their section poorly and read slowly, so the teacher told them they had to relearn it for next time. The teachers marked exactly what the next assignment would be right in the textbook. Another student pronounced everything correctly and read quickly, so the teacher assigned him more to read (a page and a half) so that he could advance faster. The textbook contained both Creole and French, starting with Creole. Since it’s almost the end of the year, almost everyone was on the French section. When reading, most students made a few mistakes, which the teacher underlined and pointed out but permitted. For several readers, she interrupted them to remind them to “Read louder.” For those reading passages in French, it was clear from the errors that some of them made that they did not know basic grammar rules and probably did not understand what they were reading, but I don’t know about the rest. One girl reading a recipe read the steps out of order, but that might have been because the teachers always have them go from left to right.

I can’t say how our presence affected how well the children read. Filomenn proudly told me “They can read in both Creole and French” at one point. She knows I place a lot of value on Creole, but clearly reading in two languages would be better than reading in only one. I was surprised they were learning to read French so early, because I thought it doesn’t start until second grade, but maybe I’m wrong about the rule or they’re using old textbooks. I’ll find out later when we discuss curricula in the workshop.

After Filomenn’s class, we went to see the third-graders. There were only 30 minutes left in the day and the kids were getting restless, so I’m not sure how fair it is to talk about how the lesson went, but I’ll report it anyway. This room contained 37 kids, divided into three rows again with two rows of girls (again). Two to three kids sat on each bench (again).

The lesson was social science, and the male teacher was just launching into a review when we arrived. It was his first time meeting me, so first he asked whether I speak French or Creole. I explained that Creole is better for me, but I can understand French. Lydia and I sat down at his desk, but he made us move into the aisle with our chairs just in case he wanted to use the board. It was a small thing, but then when he asked us whether it was okay to continue with the review and to use French during the review, I started getting the vibe that he is unsure of himself as a teacher. Maybe he was just being nice to us, but I prefer people to cater to their students instead of visitors – even when I’m the visitor.

The kids had evidently learned about the Minister of Culture – it was listed as “Content” for the day on the board (although the day’s “Objective” involved the Minister of Agriculture, so either they learned two things that day or they learned Agriculture yesterday and he tested them on it today. I never confirmed that). The teacher called on a kid (in French) and asked him to give two responsibilities that the Minister of Culture has. The boy immediately started reciting, “The minister’s responsibilities are extremely important” in a rhythmic, “I’m-reciting” tone. The teacher cut him off and asked for two responsibilities only. The boy said something that was very close to the correct answer (encourage production and control the quality of this production), but it didn’t satisfy the teacher, so he moved on to someone else.

As it turned out, one had the exact wording memorized. I was very confused myself – the phrasing was “encourage production” but I didn’t know what the products were. I assumed they were things like film and paintings because the title says the Minister of Culture, but I wondered whether that had been explained to the kids.

As he called on more and more people who didn’t have the answer, the teacher got increasingly frustrated. He told every student who answered to “Stand up straight” (most of them were leaning or slouching), he started telling others who started talking to “Be quiet”, and he told multiple people “You don’t know the lesson.” He started wondering aloud, “Do you understand what I’m asking?”

Finally, he asked everyone “Would you like an explanation?” in Creole. The class responded “Yes,” but instead of giving one he commented that if they didn’t know the lesson already they should study more. He told them they’ve been working on this material for three months, and he’s confused about why they’re still confused.

Then, he asked me whether I had anything to do with the kids in the remaining classtime. Luckily, I had come prepared with some books and an electronic reader that records your voice for each page of a book (more on that later). The kids seemed to like it, and Lydia helped out by working with other groups when I was busy with the reader. The teacher looked on.

I noticed that at least for the Creole parts, the kids were pronouncing everything correctly, but they still weren’t very fluent (that means fast, and able to add expression / pause in the right place). Of course, they were reading aloud together in small groups with their fingers on the line, so maybe they’d do better individually. I think being able to listen to their own voices surprised some, because they heard themselves reading very slowly and realized that in order to communicate a story the pacing would have to be different. But, maybe they were just surprised to hear their own voices.

The teacher did mention to me at one point that the kids aren’t too good yet at reading French when he saw what I was doing. The books we were handing out are in Creole, French, and English, so some had been attempting the French but quickly switched to Creole when they realized they were allowed to.
The kids seemed to like the books – some even started trying to answer the questions at the end. However, my magic bookreader was a little bit of a distraction. Interestingly, once they had recorded a book some weren’t interested in hearing themselves – they read over the voice-over, perhaps because like I said before they realized they had been too slow the first time.

Bois D’Avril: Classroom Observations

Back in Haiti, everyone. Arrived in Bois D’Avril last night and spent the morning observing classes at the local school. If I’m going to be working in education here, I need to get a better understanding of what’s going on in lots of different locations. All of our other laptop projects outside of Port-au-Prince are in market towns, but Bois D’Avril is a small farming village up in the mountains. I first came here back in the summer to set up the laptops; while I’m here I stay with John and Deb, a Canadian couple who have been here for 33 years and really care about making a small but lasting difference.

The school’s expanded within the last year from around 30 students to around 60. There are four teachers and four classrooms, teaching grades K-5. There’s not enough space in the little yellow school building for everyone, so fourth and fifth graders meet in the downstairs area of John and Deb’s home. That’s also where our laptop project is housed.

Class starts at 8 in the morning, stop for a snack / recess break at 10:30, and resumes around 11. On Fridays they go until 12 only; the rest of the week they go until 2. The kids just got down with the state exams, and this coming Monday will be their last day before winter vacation.

1st Grade

I started the morning in the first-grade class. Christelle, the school’s director, sat in a tiny room (about the size of a walk-in closet) crammed with 8 kids, desks, and a chalkboard. In Haiti, students normally sit in rows on benches with sloped writing surfaces. This room had some of those, but there was also a round table, probably donated.

Obligatory cute kids photo.

Obligatory cute kids photo.

Christelle opened the lesson by introducing me and encouraging the kids to ask me questions. I ended up answering and asking “What is your name?” eight different times. Christelle asked the kids if they had used the computers and used the fact that the computers have a turtle to transition to a silly rhyme about a turtle from the textbook. The kids had heard it before and tried to recite it, but it was nonsensical and in French, so I doubt they knew what they were saying. Then, Christelle started language class turning to a page about . I’m pretty sure the book was intended for French practice because the chapter title was in French, but Christelle did all the discussion in Creole. She asked the kids what they saw in the pictures and pointed out the different pieces of the car like the tire and the engine, as well as tools like wrenches. The kids seemed to know more or less what was going on, and contributed when they could. Christelle emphasized throughout that going to school and studying hard is important: “if you study hard, you can get a car like this someday? And what if your car breaks? If you study hard, you’ll have money to pay the mechanic.”

IMG_20141212_113007188 (Medium)

After that, the children pulled out their own books and opened to a page about the letter ‘S.’ Christelle told them that ‘S’ is the first letter in “silans”; one girl muttered “segond” and Christelle congratulated her for making the connection. Then, the kids read some syllables to review other letter sounds – just random combinations of vowels and consonants that they recited line by line in unison. Most of them seemed to know what they were doing – every so often, one would mess up and go to the next column instead of the next row, and they’d still get it right. Christelle had to break the rhythm several times in order to remind them that the accented e sound is shorter than the regular e sound.

Numbers 1 - 100. Numbers 1 – 100.

When I returned to the classroom after snack / recess break to take photos, the kids were copying down the numbers from 1 – 100, which Christelle had written on the blackboard for them. Christelle was setting up ID card photos with some people from the community, so she couldn’t be in the room with them and might have just been giving them something to do.


The kindergarten class was in a larger room decorated with flags. The 15 students were grouped at round tables and the young male teacher stood at the front of the room at a chalkboard. Not all the students were facing him, but at least at the beginning of the lesson most seemed to be paying attention. The teacher would write a letter on the board, and then pair it up with several vowels: “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, and “u.” First, for example, the kids said “That’s the letter F!” in unison. Then, the teacher made the letter’s sound for them (“f” says “fffffff”) and had the students all repeat it. Then, he asked: “What do ‘f’ and ‘a’ make?” and pointed to the syllable; the class said “fa” together. The teacher went down the list, stopping to correct the student’s pronunciation of “e” and “u” each time – the French versions of these vowels are different from the Creole version. The teachers’ questions and the students’ responses were in French, but the repetition made it easy for the students to understand. The kids applauded after this process was finished for each letter.

The teacher was getting a little frustrated with the pronunciation problems (and the students were getting a little bored), so he kept his patience and transitioned to a “circle the vowel” activity. He wrote the vowels up on the board, including ‘y’ this time. He wrote a series of words underneath. No one knew what a vowel was when he asked, but the first kid he called up to the board successfully circled all of them, maybe by just looking at the shapes. The next two kids both struggled and took a long time; the class lost interest quickly and started chatting among themselves and trying to get my attention. The teacher kept pushing valiantly through things. Some of the words he wrote on the board were in Creole, but most were in French. After the vowel activity, the teacher wrote up the vowels again and reminded the kids that “these are vowels and they are very important.” Then, he moved on to colors, which most people participated in loudly. The teacher made sure to show the cards a second time to a table that was being particularly quiet. After break, the teacher passed out coloring books and crayons, and everyone got to work, demonstrating some impressive staying-in-the-lines skills.

Throughout the class, the teacher seemed to be consulting a textbook that he held in his hand, behind his back. You have to go through his room to get to the supply room and bathroom, so class was constantly interrupted by passing students. The supply room also had a bed: at one point, when a girl fell asleep, the teacher carried her back there for a nap.

2nd & 3rd Grade

I moved on to the second and third graders, a group of 17 combined into one classroom and seated on desk-benches in front of a board. Roberta, their teacher, was calling them individually to the front to check their prepared reading in French. Some had a page and a half (a few paragraphs) to read; others were just pronouncing words next to pictures. Roberta was seated, held the book, and pointed to the words with a black permanent marker that someone had to procure from the supply room. Most of the kids read fairly quickly and had decent pronunciation. The few mistakes Roberta corrected them on were errors that resulted from guessing too quickly: “retire des sandals” (take off shoes) as opposed to the correct “retire des privileges” (take away privileges) and “commencement” (beginning) vs. “commerçant” (merchant). But, those words also really didn’t make too much sense in the context of the passage. Roberta checked student understanding with the translation section printed underneath each passage. Students were supposed to translate Creole sentences into French, but the sentences were from the passage, so all they had to do was find the appropriate point and read. I was glad the kids could read Creole, and at least they’d done their homework because they found the “translations” pretty quickly for the most part.

When I came back after the break, Roberta had written “Je vais tous les jours a l’ecole” (I go to school every day) on the board and the students were copying it to practice their handwriting, in cursive. Each kid had a notebook paper with 25 lines, and they were supposed to go all the way down the page, one line at a time. Of course, I was a welcome distraction in this scenario. One kid asked me to write a sentence to “prove that you know how to write”; then everybody was trying that trick. Roberta went around the room checking papers and telling kids to write the each sentence out instead of doing the words one at a time in columns. The students often forgot a letter at some point and then continued to make the same mistake on all the subsequent sentences. Two sisters in the front row finished quickly and spent the rest of class flipping through their science textbooks and singing. Everyone else struggled. Most got halfway down the page, although others did manage to get it done closer towards the end of class.

Teacher Interviews

Over break and as classes were ending, I had the chance to talk to the teachers. None of them are Bois D’Avril locals – they’re all from the city, Port-au-Prince, and they go home on the weekends. Christelle’s been making the trips for three years; the other two just started this school year, 3 months ago (I think some of the regular folks are out on maternity leave). Roberta has 3 years of teaching experience, whereas the male teacher had 6, working with an international organization. Both of them studied education in seminaire.

I asked the male teacher whether he learned about how to teach reading in school or from his international organization. He explained that he’s had to come up with his own methods, suited to Haiti and the government curriculum, because neither experience really prepared him. I talked with Roberta about the students’ French reading abilities. She’s proud of how far they’ve come. I asked if they ever get time to practice writing and she explained it’s all copying things down from the board. Both teachers used cursive (ekriti kole) when writing, which I personally think is more difficult to read than print. Roberta explained that it’s faster to write than print. It also seemed to be what textbooks wanted for the sections where a student was supposed to write something.

Some of the parents started coming around as everything was wrapping up. Most all of them are farmers, raising pepper, carrots, and potatoes on the steep slopes. Some can read. Roberta told me that kids can also get help from the older kids with their homework.

Christelle and I also talked a little bit about the 4th and 5th graders, who I didn’t get a chance to see. Many of them don’t have parents and are very difficult to control – she’s basically given up on them, and is much more hopeful about the first graders. The 4th and 5th grade teacher is also male and recently hired; the other day he attempted to beat everyone with a belt for not doing their homework. Deb wants to get rid of him, but Christelle’s in charge, and recruiting teachers who are willing to come all the way up here is difficult.

Overall, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting any of this, but it was worthwhile to see it in action as an observer – normally when I’m visiting somewhere, I’m busy working or I just have other roles besides a pair of eyes. It’s clear that the teachers I saw really care about the kids and are pushing them to succeed. I should also note that the Friday after exams and before winter break is not a good time to really make any judgments about the actual situation.
But it looks like at some point teachers were getting tired and running out of things to do with the kids, hence the more mindless activities like copying the numbers. Classes are small enough here and the teachers have enough support to do things differently, but those kinds of changes will take some creativity and willingness to adapt on the part of both the teachers and the students. The teachers were taught with these same methods and it worked for them, after all.
This is where I’m thinking technology might be helpful – it’s a new, fresh context for the kids to apply what they’re learning and explore new things. But, the 4th and 5th graders have apparently been skipping those classes; others are excited but it will take time before they really understand these machines. The kids here have never heard of Facebook or Google; they don’t even have phones. I’m actually excited about that because I think it means they will be more open to the possibilities than kids who think they already know what computers are for, but it still means this will take time.