Ask and it shall be given?

I told the teachers to work on their lesson plans over the weekend and then on Monday we would talk about topics like presenting a book in front of a class. We started out with the idea of asking “questions that have more than one answer.” I told the teachers that it’s good to ask students about information from the story you just read to them to make sure they’re listening, but it can be even better to ask them a more subjective question that requires some critical thinking, like “What will happen next?” or “What would you do in the same situation?” I explained that since each kid has a different response, they’ll all have to sit there thinking about what to say instead of just deciding whether the first person who raised their hand was right or wrong.

This discussion built off of a few conversations I’d been having with individual teachers about what it means to read a story in front of the class. Some of the teachers selected books that were very short and simple as presentation books. At first, I tried to tell them, “Look, the schedule says you will spend 20 minutes reading this book. How can you spend 20 minutes on a book that is only 8 pages?” But, they always assured me that they’d be able to do it. They pointed out that first of all, after you finish reading you’ve got to ask every kid a question in order to make sure they understand. When they get the questions wrong, that means you should read the book a second time straight through, to give them another chance to listen and grasp it. For some of the longer books, teachers were saying they wouldn’t have time to get through it in 20 or 30 minutes, so they’d stop midway through and pick it up the next class.

This was one place where I put my foot down. They should be reading one book, straight through, out loud to the class, for a good 20 or 30 minutes every day. No selecting kids to read paragraph by paragraph (it’s no fun to sit and listen to one of your fellow classmates struggle through a passage). No picking a short book and reading it two times through. As far as asking questions to confirm comprehension goes, that’s why we had the conversation about subjective questions – I figure at least those will be more engaging for students. I told the teachers that the objective of reading a book out loud to the kids is to increase their oral listening skills (you pick a book that is more difficult than what they would typically be able to access on their own) and to get them excited about reading by demonstrating how fun it can be. If the kids are paying attention, they’ll probably be able to tell you at the end of the story which character was which. But, if they can’t, then it’s just a capacity that they need to continue developing. It’s not like this is a science class or a history class where there’s a specific set of facts and theories we need to stuff between your ears. Our objective is reading and writing. If they don’t get the story the first time, it’s not a big deal to move on to something else and see how they do on the next story the next class. I’m not sure how helpful reading a second time will be, after all, because in my mind you get bored the second time and even though you pick up on some details you with you spend most of the second reading just sitting there waiting for it to be over.

Anyway, I guess for me it was just interesting that the concept of presenting turned out to be the most confusing one. I thought personally that the group work would cause a lot of problems, because that’s not done normally in Haitian schools. But it turns out it’s easier to start something completely new instead of changing something slightly that’s already in place. I tried emphasizing to teachers that kids do what you expect them to do. If you tell them to sit and listen to something for 20 or 30 minutes straight through, they can. I pointed out that they do it all the time, for two hours at a time, when they’re watching a movie. Of course, some people might say a book isn’t as exciting as a movie. But if there’s one thing these teachers definitely have down pat, it’s the ability to keep all eyes in the class on them. Maybe that’s a skill that the students have, too, come to think of it. Both groups work together to maintain the collective attentions span, because there would be fifty conversations going on at the same time and learning would really be impossible.

My mistake is, sometimes when I’m telling teachers that they should demand a lot from their students, I phrase it as, “Well, in my country, the kids are able to do it, and so I think the Haitian kids aren’t any different.” At one point, a teacher raised their hand and told me that one of these days I should demonstrate the whole two hour lesson for them instead of doing a normal training session. I pointed out that wouldn’t be the best use of time, and that they’re better at teaching than I am anyway.

He said the point of making me go through that would be to show me that some of what I’m asking for isn’t possible. You can’t expect Haitian third-graders to arrive at the same level as American third-graders. They’ve got so much in their way, so many disadvantages.

Cue long rant from me, with no pauses to translate for my friends (normally, I stop every few sentences to let Aidan and Zhane know what’s going on and ask for their input. Or at least, I try to). First of all, I decide to approach the question linguistically. Sometimes, I talk about technology or about languages, the two subjects I’m recognized as the local expert in, instead of attacking them head-on and saying, “Wait, are you really telling me that you don’t believe the kids are smart enough?” Maybe being frank would be the better approach, but sometimes I try not to step over the boundaries of my role. I try to give myself a specific job to do, because that will give me the chance to do it well.

Anyway, I told the teacher that Haitian Creole, as a written language, resembles Spanish a lot. Both systems are more or less phonetic – each sound corresponds to one letter, and vice versa. Their syllables end in vowels, instead of consonants (Haitian Creole does have a lot more consonant-ending syllables than Spanish, but you can still argue that it’s easier to break words into syllables in Haitian Creole than it would be in English). When you’ve got a system like that, it doesn’t take kids much time before they’re able to read any word you put in front of them. Whereas back home, we’re having spelling bees up through the eighth grade. I told the teachers that what their kids are missing is practice, not intelligence. Sure, it would be nicer if the school-day could be longer, if the kids could show up with full bellies, if the parents knew how to read themselves. A lot of things could be changed for the better. But if they use what they have efficiently, they can get pretty far on that alone.

I don’t think he was really satisfied with my answer, so I wrapped up with, “You know, this is a research study.” I don’t know what exactly I can expect from the kids, or the teachers. Maybe I really am being too ambitious and asking for too much. But that silly saying about shooting for the moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars might be applicable here. Either that, or we’re in deep space and we’re suffocating. I guess we’ll see.

Parents’ Meeting

Last week, we had our last parents’ meeting. At every school where we’re working, I asked the directors to organize a meeting with the parents so I could present the project, hand out consent forms, and take questions. In the last two meetings, the questions had been pretty basic. I tried to make it clear to everyone that just because you turn in the form doesn’t mean your child will be selected. If you have two children in the same school or the same grade, one might be selected and the other might not be. Not everyone is going to be using a laptop – half of the kids will be using paper books. Once those things were cleared up, people tended to be satisfied.

Not so with this meeting, at the Catholic school. There were a lot of questions about the project itself. Most of them came from men. The first guy wanted to know what the long-term plan was. I explained that everything depends on what results we get. Someone else wanted to know more details about me and my organization. I wrote my contact information on the board, and I talked for a bit about how we’re very aware that many foreign NGOs come in, make a donation, leave, and never come back. After all, we’re working with laptops that were basically abandoned by One Laptop Per Child. I explained that our goal is to enable schools to take advantage of these resources. We’ll provide power, connectivity, and training, and we’ll work to integrate the laptops into classrooms instead of sponsoring an after-school activity.

I explained that the school itself had to take ownership in order for this to become sustainable. We’ll provide them with the things they need, but in the end it’s up to them to decide to use them. We’re not going to pay people for years on end to use these laptops. The summer program is funded, but after that if the laptops become a normal part of the school day then the teachers will receive the same amount of money for using them that they’d normally receive for teaching. Our organization can’t provide scholarships, salaries, or stipends. The school has to decide that laptops are worth it. In terms of expanding, if we get good results, we can reach out to public and private networks for the support to get larger. The next step, after this summer, is to adapt the program for the school-day situation and schedule. That will happen in December. After that, it’s really up to the schools. This is a year-long effort, and then we’ll see. No one can predict the future.
One mother asked whether we would take photos of the kids and share them with our government, because I’d mentioned that the U.S. government is providing part of our funding. I didn’t understand her concern at first. It turned out she was worried that if the government knew the kids were getting help in our program, they wouldn’t allow them to participate in other programs. I reiterated that all the information would be private.

Then, another man had a complaint about the fact that we were only choosing 30 students per grade. There’s 50+ students per grade. He saw it as unjust. I explained that we’d like to take everybody, but we don’t have the resources, both in terms of teachers and money to pay the teachers. Everyone will get the chance to use the laptops and follow our adapted curriculum in January. For three months (September, October, November) some kids will be behind the others in the class because they didn’t participate in the summer activity. We’ll instruct the teachers to pay special attention to them, and they’ll probably benefit from being surrounded by other students who worked over the summer. I said we didn’t want to make the teachers work with more than 15 students at once, because this is partially a training activity, and we want them to have conditions where they’ll be successful.

The guy wasn’t satisfied with that answer. He said that’s not how you do things here in Haiti. Someone suggested that we get one of the sisters to come up and talk about whether or not they approved of this program. Sister Micheline said that she’d talked to me last summer and again in December about the possibility of starting to use the laptops again, and they sent one of their teachers to our workshop in December. She said that if some of the parents didn’t want to participate because they had doubts, they weren’t going to force anyone.

After that, we handed out the forms and left. Aidan and Zhane both had a lot of questions for me about what had gone on – I hadn’t been translating, because I’d been too busy responding. I told them it’s a good thing parents asked so many probing questions. I’d rather have that than blind acceptance of what I’m doing, and their concerns were completely legitimate. It’s hard to be doing something that’s framed as research. At the end of the day, you’re not helping everyone, or at least you’re not helping everyone equally. The idea is that in the long term the information you find out will be helpful to everybody. But how do you explain that to the kids and their parents?

First Laptop Workshop

Originally, we’d been planning to start laptop stuff Monday, or even the week after that, but I decided to have a preliminary thing on Saturday in order to give them more time to get used to the computers. That affected turn-out: only six of the nine teachers showed up, and we started an hour late. I’d decided ahead of time not to feed everyone, so we just got drinks.

After discussing the advantages and the disadvantages of the laptops, we pulled up the WriteBooks, an activity that Gonzalo Odiard developed for our team. I walked the teachers through how to add a background image, add an image, and write text. Some had prior experience with the laptops and went very quickly. Others needed a little bit of help – one woman in particular was struggling, because she was too hesitant to click on things after hovering her mouse over them. I let the teacher sitting next to her, who was quick with the laptops, help her out. I also took the time to explain concepts like clicking and dragging to the group as a whole, offering plenty of examples: “If you want to move this pen over here, you put your hand over it, you grab it, and you don’t let go until you get to the spot you want to move it to. Then, you let go of it.”

After everyone had the example on their screen, I asked them to add a second blank page and start working on it. Some were able to do it, and others needed to be coached through the steps again. One teacher searched for “dog” and a chimpanzee came up along with some dog pictures, because the word for dog is “chen” and the word for chimp is “chenpanze.” She asked if there was a way to look up “chenpanze” so the kids can learn what it is. I showed her the HaitiDictionary activity, a Creole-Creole dictionary stored on the computers. Another teacher wanted to orient a car so that it looked like it was coming straight at you as it entered a garage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any car images that were facing in that direction. I also used the time to coach teachers on using the mouse, typing upper-case letters, and adding accents.

After everyone was done, I asked a teacher to walk us through the steps again – partly to remind everyone how to do it, and partly to see how good he was at explaining what to do. At one point, he used the word “cursor”, and I said it wasn’t a word he could expect the kids to recognize. Everyone should use “mouse” or “arrow” when talking about the mouse. Otherwise, his explanation was well-paced and clear, which I was happy about.
Our hour was almost up at that point (originally, we’d scheduled everything for two hours, but everyone had shown up an hour late, and I didn’t want to keep them long because it was a Saturday). I told the teachers to play around with the activity more. I helped some of them out with using the arrow keys to navigate through the text they’d already written. Then, I suggested we all walk down to the house to grab some chargers so they could take the laptops home and practice by themselves. They said I should go down myself and come back up – they’d wait for me. When I got back, they were still working on the computers, which I was happy to see.

I told them their homework was to write a story of three to five pages, and come up with five recommendations about how to make the app better. They asked some questions of what I meant by a story. Did they have to write it on the computers, or just tell it to me from their head? Did it have to be a story they made up, or could they copy some from a book? What kind of stuff should go on each page?

After that, they asked me to sing a song I’d written – I’d made the mistake of mentioning that I write songs but I’m a terrible singer. “You always ask us to do stuff we’re not comfortable with,” they said. “You should have to do the same thing.”

As we were leaving, I glanced at my phone, and realized a whole hour had passed – the teachers had willingly stayed for the extra hour, even though it was Saturday. I felt like that was a confirmation that for once I’d done something right. Maybe it was the computers, or the smaller number of people, or the fact that the directions were clearer, or maybe everyone, including me, is just more relaxed on Saturdays. But it was nice.

Workshop Reflection: First Week

We just got through our first week of workshops, and I’m anxious to see what the teachers will have come Monday. We’ve been groping towards an answer this whole time, and I think we’re getting closer but it all depends on what ends up getting put down on the papers.

There are a total of 18 teachers involved in this project: 6 from each school. We wanted to work with first-, second-, and third-grade teachers, but most schools don’t have more than one class per grade. So, the other three teachers are from the 5th – 9th grade classes. Since there are two teachers for each of the three grades at each school, one teacher ends up working with laptops and the other ends up working with paper books. For this first week, we had everyone together, and we talked about the paper books only.

The first day was my first time meeting most of the teachers outside of their classrooms. Some had worked with me in December, but the rest were new. We started an hour late because not everyone came on time, and two of the schools sent seven people instead of six, prompting confusion about who was actually supposed to be there. I made a few phone calls and got things sorted out. I’d been clear from the beginning about wanting only six, and I think some of the schools were just reluctant to turn others who wanted to participate away, so they made me be the one to say it instead of them.

We started out with a general introduction to the program – how long it would last, how many students each teacher would have, what the general goal was. I admitted that I’m very young and would need a lot of help on their end to pull this off.

I tend to frame a lot of what we’re doing in terms of resources and tools. Instead of criticizing the teachers for the methods I see them using in the classroom, I try to understand why it is they’re using those methods in the first place. When you’ve got more than 50 kids in the classroom and the school day only allows 45 minutes to focus on reading and writing, you’re going to have to adapt to those conditions. You have all the kids read in unison, so you can make sure that they’re all participating and engaged, because there are too many to work with them one on one or divide them into groups. You give them only a few minutes to write down their answers, even though that’s not nearly enough time, because you’ve got to start a new lesson very soon. And in terms of books, all you’ve got is whatever textbooks the government has issued (and often, not everyone in class will have their own copy, so they’ve got to share or you’ve got to write the text on the board so everyone can see it). You’ve got limited options for choosing a story that makes you and the kids happy.

So, when I talk to the teachers about what we’re up to this summer, I talk about all the advantages they’re going to have this time. With 143 books, they’ve got tons of choices for working at different levels, interests, and contexts. With only fifteen kids in front of them, they can do things like divide them up into groups that weren’t possible before. They can spend more time assessing and assisting students individually, because they’ve got less students to keep track of. With two whole hours to devote to just reading and writing, they can get through a whole book every lesson, give the students time to read independently, and allow a reasonable amount of time for writing. The fact that they don’t have to follow the government curriculum means we can focus on reading Creole exclusively instead of presenting French, and there are no objectives beyond reading and writing – it would be great if the kids could tell you the names of some planets after reading a book about the solar system, but that’s not what I want the teachers emphasizing when they read and talk about the book.

That was a big thing that came up during the workshops – the idea of an objective. I laid out the books in front of the teachers, and asked them to choose a few and plan out lessons and activities for them. I said I didn’t want to give them too many more details than that, because I’m not a teacher, I’m not Haitian, and I want to see what they’ll come up with on their own.

We divided the teachers up into groups based on grade level. Each group has six teachers – two from each school. Three of the teachers in the group actually teach the grade level in their classrooms. The others work with the grade levels beyond third. I told each group that their ultimate goal was to write a curriculum that they could use over the 18 classes this summer: three classes a week, for six weeks. Today, I told them, our goal was just to start talking and thinking about what it means to have access to all these books and how to make use of them given that the circumstances (time and number of children) have changed.

That first day, I spent a lot of time going back and forth between groups. Each had divided up into different rooms, and in every room I had a lot of questions to answer. I spent most of my time talking about the concept of working with a book as a group, because I guessed that was the one they were most familiar with. We talked about how you can divide the class into groups of three or five children, and you can give each student a role. For example, in a group of three, one kid reads, one talks about what they see in the pictures, and the other catches their mistakes.

It took a little bit to make logistics clear throughout the workshop. First, I had to clarify that they’d only have one copy of each book. “We chose variety over quantity,” I explained. That was something that troubled me initially when we were planning out the project, but then I talked to some teachers who told me that they often have only one copy of the book when they’re doing read-alouds in front of students. Why would you need more than that? For the work in groups, you can have the kids rotate books, so each group of five is working with something different. Again, only one copy of each book is necessary. Of course, the computer class will have as many copies of each book as they want, because you can display it on each screen, but I guess that’s a natural consequence of the need to be cost-effective. We simply can’t afford to provide one copy of each book to every kid in the class, and providing two or three copies per class would mean reducing the number of books teachers and students have to choose from.* At one point, when I came back upstairs after consulting with a group, I saw that the first-grade team was deeply immersed in a vigorous debate. Excited to see them engaged with something, I approached them and asked what they were talk about. Apparently, they’d just read a book about fruit, and they were divided on the question of whether a pumpkin is a fruit or a vegetable. I answered that it’s definitely a fruit, because it has seeds. But, I told them, I’d really appreciate it if they spent more time working on the books themselves, instead of that.

They pointed out that it’s a relevant question because the book was about fruit. I clarified that the goal of the summer camp isn’t to learn about fruit, or the Aztecs, or be able to recite what happened to a particular character. All we want is reading and writing. When they do the lesson, they should talk about those first and foremost.

I gave the teachers homework: take one of the books home, and plan out some activities on it.

The next day, all the teachers showed up on time at least (the day before, we started almost an hour late). This time, instead of waiting for them to finish eating, I asked someone to present their book activity while everyone else was digging into their food. Fanie walked us through the book “A Mango for Grandfather.” She didn’t read the book, but she talked about what was happening on each page and gave us the gist of the story: a grandfather takes care of a little girl while she’s growing up, peeling mangoes for her. When he gets too old to take care of her, she takes care of him by peeling the mangoes for him. When he dies, they surround his casket with fruit as a reminder of all the times he has provided for them. I thanked the teacher for being brave enough to go first, and then asked the class for feedback. Everyone agreed that it had been a good presentation of what is in the book. I proposed an activity that could accompany the reading: “You could have them write about someone important in their life, or maybe their grandfather, or maybe someone they knew who died.”

After that, Jonas gave us a presentation on a book called “Insects.” We’d talked a little about the book the day before. He explained that insects can be “useful” or “pesky”, and he said that the related activity to the reading would be to make a list of five useful insects and five pesky insects. One of the teachers pointed out that all insects are technically useful, when you’re looking at the context of the environment, and Raymond added that he was thinking specifically about what would be useful for people. One of the teachers pretended to be a student: “Teacher, my father told me that insects can change. Caterpillars turn into butterflies, and maggots turn into flies.” The other teachers commented that it wasn’t likely a student would be that smart. But they also complimented him on his good Creole skills. It was good to hear about Creole as a skill.

Another teacher walked us through “Marasa pou lavi,” a book about two twin girls who get separated but stay friends. Twins have a special significance here in Haitian culture. When I tell people I have a twin, they laugh and ask whether I know how to curse people, because apparently that’s something that comes easily to twins. Anyway, at the end of the lesson, the main piece of feedback was that she’d taken too long to read the book. It had been fifteen or twenty minutes. Someone recommended stopping midway through and continuing the next day. But, it turned out she’d already stopped midway through. I brought up the point that fifteen or twenty minutes may seem like a long time if you think of it as half of your allotted 45 minutes, but they should start thinking of it as less than a quarter of the two hours they now have to fill. In my opinion, I said, 25 or 30 minutes is an appropriate amount of time to spend reading aloud. As long as you’re animated and ask questions over the course of the story instead of at the very end, the kids will pay attention.

This time, when we divided up into groups, the teachers were more on task, attempting to pick out books that looked promising. I asked them to start distinguishing between the kind of book you would read aloud to a class and the kind of book you would give kids to work with in a group, but for many the idea of kids working on a book all by themselves instead of being led through it was strange. Shouldn’t kids always have a teacher walking through with them? At least with the idea planted in their heads, they started thinking about it and their students’ levels as they flipped through. One of the teachers told me, “You’re looking more for presentations like the one that he gave about insects, with an activity and everything, aren’t you?” At the end of the workshop, I asked the teachers to take three or four books home to work with. Most of them didn’t have that many already picked out, so we did some last-minute distribution. I tried to hand things out as best I could, but a lot of it was random.

There was no workshop on Wednesday – I had planned to go to the airport to pick up my teammates and I figured we all needed a day of reflection. The teachers could use it to look at the books and think about the new opportunities we’d been discussing, and I could use it to plan what to do differently on Thursday and Friday. I don’t want to control too much of what goes on, because I don’t want to cut off any of what they plan to do, but it clearly wasn’t fair to expect them to make a complete shift without some clarification of which path might be good to take.

After introducing Zhane and Aidan on Thursday, we launched into books again. One teacher started a story called Little Chicken – it’s the one about the chicken who lives in a house with other animals and does all the work. They didn’t get very far in the text; only long enough to describe all the animals’ personalities. The dog was sleepy, the cat was vain, and the goose was a joker.

The teacher had to respond to some interesting student comments when she started asking them questions about the reading. The teacher stated that the moral of the story was that working hard is good. After all, someone has to do it. One of the students disagreed. He said that it’s better to just let someone else do the work. He would be like the dog, and take advantage of another person’s willingness to work hard.

We had a few suggestions for activities. The teacher could assign the members of a group working on this book to different roles and ask them to justify their behavior. The chicken might say, “If I don’t do it, who will?” whereas the cat could be like, “If I abandon my beauty routine to get some chores done, I’m depriving the world of my loveliness.”

After that we distributed papers for writing down the lesson plans they were making – it was time to get serious. I went around to the groups, explaining that I expected 36 lesson plans. 18 read-aloud books, and 18 group books. That meant each person in a group would be responsible for three. As samples started coming in, I kept emphasizing the importance of assigning some books as group work. Planning a read-aloud presentation was coming more naturally to them, but I encouraged them to focus on group work books for the moment, because I knew that concept would be harder to grasp. I listed the four elements that should be a part of each lesson: individual reading, a read-aloud book, a writing activity, and group work. I told them each one should last about thirty minutes: maybe take only twenty for the individual reading, so you can spend thirty-five on the read-aloud book. I kept emphasizing that they have much more time than they’re used to, and they need to make the most of it.

On Friday, I asked each group to have a representative present on what progress they’d made yesterday. One of the first grade teachers started out by going through a lesson. I interrupted her at several points to ask for clarifications, and each time the other teachers in her group told me to just wait – it would become clear soon.

The lesson included a writing activity and a read-aloud, but there was no point during the lesson where the kids were really reading a text by themselves. Instead, the teacher had interpreted the concept of group work as students reading in unison, in small groups of three or five. They call this “collaborative reading.” I asked teachers to give me some of the benefits of this activity. One of them told me that although it’s hard to evaluate individual student capacity with this method (because how can you tell who’s reading and who’s just repeating), it’s a good way of making sure all students are engaged (if you’re not opening your mouth, you get called out). I pointed out that now that they have 15 students in a class, monitoring that everyone is paying attention shouldn’t be so much of an issue. A few more teachers injected comments about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the method. I explained that when you have kids working together in a group, you have to give each kid a different role. That way, they’re not copying each other. Each one is thinking for themselves. I talked again about the idea of having one kid explain pictures, one kid read the text, and one kid check the other two. The teacher who’d first proposed the collective reading ended up saying she’d change her lesson plan.

Next, Marie-Carmelle, another first-grade teacher, presented on a nonfiction book about the sun. She explained that while flipping through the book, she’d noticed a lot of words contain the accented e. When teaching the book, she could emphasize the accented e by giving lots of examples with the sound, especially because oftentimes the words with accented e were bold. I asked her whether she realized that the bolded words belonged to a glossary of definitions at the back of the book. It turned out she hadn’t.

I said it was a good lesson plan for first-graders, but maybe not so relevant for the higher grades that already know their sounds. Somebody commented that I’m overestimating the capacity of Haitian children. You can’t expect third-graders in this country to perform as well as the third-graders back at home. I went on a rant about how I’m tired of hearing things like that. I told them that I know Haiti’s poor, I know their schools lack resources, I know kids come to class hungry and don’t receive any help from their illiterate parents at home. I’ve sat in their classes, and I’ve seen what happens. But they’ve got some advantages, too. Creole, with its phonetic writing system, is much easier to learn to read than English. For the most part, each letter only says one thing, all the time. What the kids lack is the opportunity to practice. When you do things like collaborative reading, or you give them only five minutes to write a story, the ones who can do it will do it and the ones who can’t will be able to hide. One teacher pointed out that every week he calls the students up in front of him one by one and asks them to read. “You should be doing that every day,” I pointed out. That’s why we’re asking for so many writing activities, so much group work, and a lot of division of labor. Each kid needs to be thinking for themselves.

The teachers asked for a clarification of objectives, and I said the same thing I’d said the other day: each lesson should have four parts. They asked me to present a model lesson, and I told them we’d do more of that in the coming week. I also said that I’m not a teacher, and I’m not Haitian, so I’m not the best person to do it, but they can watch their peers. Someone said I should just try it, in order to understand that what I’m asking them to do is really hard. The students can’t work at this level. What did I expect to see at the end of the six weeks of classes, anyway?

I said I knew I was being ambitious, and I wasn’t sure what we’d end up seeing. That’s the whole point of doing research. I said that in my opinion if you give a kid the chance to read, write, listen to a story, and work with a group every class, you’ll see improvement. I also pointed out that we’re doing everything we can to make things easier for the teachers by restricting class sizes and giving them more time.

In one of the groups I visited that afternoon, I critiqued a lesson plan because the teacher hadn’t included a writing activity. Instead, he devoted twenty minutes to asking the students verbal questions about what he’d read. I was confused about why it would take that long to ask questions. The teacher explained he wanted to ask all the students individually, one by one. I told him that was a mistake, because while he was doing that all the rest would be sitting there bored. Plus, each one would probably copy the others. I reminded him that the whole point of these classes is to increase reading and writing skills. I said that in the U.S., when the teachers want to evaluate students, they have them write their responses and then they grade them at home later.

I said I knew that doing grading at home was asking for the teachers to do extra work, and it was up to the schools to encourage that (aka, pay the teachers higher salaries). But ultimately, using class-time effectively would lead to much better outcomes.

One of the teachers pointed out that even in the higher grades there are kids who still can’t read. I told him that once we have the results of the pre-test, I’ll share them with him. One of the other teachers, who works with fourth graders in the classroom, commented that a big problem she sees is that the kids aren’t used to producing anything. You ask them to write a sentence, and they freeze up. I said that was natural, given that in the lower grades they aren’t really required to do individual writing – it’s all recitation as a group and responding verbally. The teacher agreed, and said, “I’ll always be a champion for making the kids produce something, because that’s what will actually make a difference in our schools.” The teacher who’d originally said the thing about students being worse at reading than I realized still wasn’t convinced that a little more practice would make a big difference. I promised again to let him know the exam results as soon as we had them.

*We spent $1000 per school on paper books, but we didn’t want to go any higher than that. So, we’re following the library model. One copy of each book; if it’s checked out then you just have to wait (actually, we’ll coordinate schedules among teachers to make sure two teachers at the same school aren’t planning to use the same book for the same week). Comparatively, our digital books are costing us $600.00 per school. Obviously, the laptops, solar panels, and batteries are all additional expenses, but we’re expecting those to last longer than the paper books. Even if the kids treat them really, really well, I’m not sure we can expect longer than a few years what with so many hands. Then again, the batteries will also expire after three to five years, and then you’ve got a $720 investment to replace. And if you’re using Internet to deliver the books, that’s $25 a month. So it’s a little difficult to figure out whether we’re being fair and spending the correct amounts on technology and books. Take the need to provide power out of the equation, and things would be easier, but we don’t want to be reliant on a shaky grid system right now, and someone would still have to pay the bills, so we’re sticking with solar. You can also talk about using e-readers, which would consume much less power than a laptop and don’t need to be charged as often. Your investment goes down from four batteries to two, or maybe even one. But there’s a lot of things you can do with a laptop that you can’t do with an e-reader. Same thing with a cell phone. It’s not like it’s impossible to type a novel on your cell phone, but it’s much less likely to happen. I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with giving out tech that was designed with consumption, rather than creation, in mind. Someday, though, we won’t have stacks of computers sitting in closets to work with, and we’re going to have to start looking at other options. That day is coming sooner than I want it to. These laptops were donated in 2008 and 2009, which means they’re already six or seven years old. They’re durable, but I’m not sure how much longer we can expect them to last. Fortunately, we still have a little longer.

Lascahobas Workshops: Final Review

After five pretty intense days, it’s worth considering how much was accomplished and how much farther we have to go.

In terms of the actual writing process, I was pretty impressed with what the teachers produced. Many had never used computers before, and I didn’t exactly sit down with them to explain things – they learned about things like pressing the shift key to make an uppercase letter as they went along. The fact that teachers were supposed to be selecting words from a pre-approved list wasn’t as much of a restriction as I thought it would be. They were creative enough, and the lists were long enough, that they could produce a variety of texts that at least made sense. Of course, not everyone actually used the lists to write, and everyone used the lists less and less the more time they spent in the workshop. It was something that happened naturally, as teachers shared books with one another and got more comfortable with trying to tell a story and express themselves on the computer screen. I’m still not sure if it’s something I should have tried to stop. The teachers clearly understood the purpose of the lists, based on the earlier work, and were trying something new. They also told me that if they were integrating these texts into a school program, it would make more sense. If your students have only learned five letters so far, you want books with those five letters. We also talked about how books can be used for different purposes. Books that students can’t read independently because they’re too difficult might make good read-alouds. Perhaps if they’d had a longer time to sit with students and observe whether they were able to read the texts or not, they would make changes to keep things easy on the beginners. I did notice that when we moved into the teaching stage teachers generally chose to work with the texts with more list-words. It might be a question of what the ‘market’ decides in the end. At least now, they have a range of materials to draw from, instead of just government-issued textbooks.

Group shot - all the workshop participants.

Group shot – all the workshop participants.

In terms of teaching, one thing I observed during the tutoring sessions with the teachers is that personal energy and patience may be more important than technique. Of course, some techniques work better than others, but they can vary from student to student, and a good teacher will be able to adapt to each learner. Of course, that also means giving them the training and resources they need in order to be capable of that. Time and energy are resources as much as books – if teachers are working with sixty students at the same time, there’s no way they’ll be able to put any of their training into practice.

So yeah, it all comes down to money in the end. And when your project is partly based on technology, you’ll definitely end up spending larger amounts of time than you planned making sure everything is working. I was lucky to have Nick taking care of that side of things, but even so there were some scary moments: the server would go down and people would lose their work; computers would run out of juice and there would be no replacement batteries because of trouble with the electrical system. Teachers complained about the XO’s small keyboards and slow processing power. I lent them my laptop, Nick lent his, and we found a USB keyboard to plug in, and everyone else just made do.

I think in the end the biggest thing I’m leaving with is my connection with the teachers. We brought together a group of educators and got them talking about how to write in their own language. People didn’t always agree with one another, but the debates were productive and important for the most part. In any institution, change takes a lot of courage and confidence to implement – the teachers have to be brave enough to try something new and the directors have to trust the teachers to know what they’re doing. It’s especially hard in a school, where the government is constantly evaluating performance and the lofty goal of ‘education’ or even ‘literacy’ is so hard to define. I was excited to be having these conversations. People didn’t mind speaking frankly about the tough questions, which in my mind is the first step to making changes.

Fifth Workshop Day: Last Session!

This was the last full day of the workshop, and I’m pleased to report that in many ways it was also the best. Although it was Saturday, people left behind their friends and families in order to get together one last time. We started out by writing some more texts. I told the teachers that we were going to do things a little differently this time with the kids. Instead of using their own texts, they had to choose someone else’s and then provide that person feedback on how it went. We’d made modifications to the server to make it easier for teachers to access all of the books being published there, which encouraged everyone to start editing each other’s texts. Of course, that process sparked debates about what was the “correct” way to write things, in between adding in capital letters and commas and accents. We discussed concepts such as how to make contractions (is it ‘m ap’, ‘map’, or ‘m’ap’?), and there was a particularly rousing debate about whether names get Creolized. Technically, “Roro” should be written “Wowo”, but what if Roro prefers to write his name the first way? The same problem pops up all the time when you’re translating. Is it Internet-in-a-Box, or Entenet-nan-Bwat? Depends on who’s deciding what the value of the name is, sometimes.

Anyway, I was happy to hear everyone talking and making decisions. For the most part, both the editor and the original writer were able to come to a consensus on what to finally put down – perhaps with a consultation from Petiville, our resident Creole teacher. Sometimes, though, the writer would use a phrase the editor wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it was hard to determine who was really “right” about the “right way” to say it. Normally, those debates ended with the editor appealing to the fact that these books are for children – they should include words that everyone would recognize. But, I often took the side of the writer. Doesn’t it lose some of its richness that way? And isn’t a big part of reading being exposed to things you don’t already know?

IMG_20141220_113346009_HDR (Medium)

At that point, kids started showing up, and teachers peeled off into classrooms to work with them in small groups. This time, I saw a lot of the same techniques as before – reading in unison, pointing to the words, prompting the kids to sound things out when they were struggling. I noticed our improvements to the way the app displayed books seemed to be working – we made the words much larger, displayed only three per line, and placed more space between lines. It was all especially important considering that several people would be clustered around the same laptop.

One teacher worked with the kids until they were successfully able to get through the text, and then started talking about how important it was for the kids to “go home and practice reading” in order for them to actually learn it. I recalled the unresolved problem of the overcrowded classrooms from yesterday, and realized the teacher was right. The only way these kids could learn how to read would be if their parents or someone else took the time to help them at home, given how many obstacles the teachers had to overcome during the schoolday.

Once we got together again and talked a little about how things went, I brought up the grant proposal that a team of students from my college and I have been writing, and asked for their input. The basic idea is to use this software to write more books that kids can read on the computers as part of a summer reading camp. We discussed details like dates, how much time for day, and incentives to get people to come. According to the teachers, the parents who lived close to the school would have no problem sending their kids, but we should provide them with a small snack to keep them coming. Teachers recommended restricting the number of kids per teacher to 10 or 15 – we talked about how adding more kids meant more people would be helped but everyone would receive less attention.

We got into a long conversation about what age ranges and grade levels would benefit the most (ages don’t always correlate to grade here, since many students start school late). Everyone seemed to agree that by the end of third grade, kids are comfortable with reading, so the group to target would be kids who have just finished second grade. First-grade graduates can also learn a lot, but since they only begin the alphabet and letter sounds in first grade we shouldn’t go any lower than that.

Once we had grade levels, we started getting into who should participate. We quickly ruled out advanced and middling performers – if teachers were going to invest time and energy into helping someone out, they wanted to target the students who needed it the most. That attitude was a little surprising to me – I was thinking they might be frustrated with the slower students’ lack of progress and make what might be the safer choice, of sticking with the middle group who had at least demonstrated some ability already. But, the teachers were motivated to see some dramatic improvements, so they wanted to start on the bottom. They told me they believed that most of the students having difficulties aren’t innately unintelligent; they just haven’t had access to the same resources and attention as others.

All in all, everyone seemed pretty excited about the idea of moving forward, even though we were all a little unsure about how it would look. If kids were coming from 8 to 12 every weekday over the summer, like the teachers recommended, how would they spend that 4 hours? What extra activities would the teachers integrate to support what they’d normally cover in a lesson? How would they transition from merely controlling a class of 60 pupils to working closely to support a much smaller group? At this point, everyone appreciates that they’ll finally have the resources to make some of this happen, in terms of time and reading material. But, I know we’ve got much longer to go before we’ve got it figured out.

Fourth Workshop Day: The Root of the Problem

The fourth day of the workshop was supposed to start with an hour of work followed by a little time to work with the kids, but unfortunately the kids came early and the teachers came late. The kids ended up waiting while we sat up in the room writing some books, because almost everything people wrote the day before had been lost due to the not-pressing-the-save-button-after-the-first-word issue. I was really frustrated and apologetic about it, and the teachers went ahead and wrote more.

Then, we finally got together with the children to read the texts. My original plan called for one-on-one instruction, but in my discussions with the teachers I discovered they prefer working in groups because “the kids encourage each other.” I decided to go with what they preferred and what they were used to to see what it looked like in action.

I told each teacher to use their own texts for the exercise, so they were working at a range of levels. The kids milling around in the yard were a mix of first- and second-graders, but some teachers had less time than others to make sure the group they selected was in fact appropriate for the book they’d be using.

Some kids who showed up hadn’t really gotten to the stage where they were reading. According to the teachers, first-graders know all the consonants and some of the vowels at this point, but they haven’t necessarily practiced the idea of pairing consonants with vowels yet. Some of the teachers had to start right from the beginning (“this is the letter ‘p’. It says ‘ppppp.’ When you put it together with ‘a’, what do you get?”).

Of course, the advantage of reading in groups is that one kid might be able to make it through even if the others are lost. A lot of reading classes in Haiti feature recitation, where everyone reads in a group and the ones who really can’t read learn fast how to fake it. The teachers seemed to recognize this practice wasn’t involving poor readers – “you didn’t all say it at the same time; you’re not actually reading it” – but they claimed the poor readers needed to see their peers modeling techniques like pointing to each words as they read it before they’d be ready to figure out texts by themselves. Teachers did try to ask individual kids to read line by line; the kids who couldn’t read were noticeably more shy about it. The teachers were really patient with this group, helping them sound out words, but once the kids had mastered a word they’d move straight on to the next one. For the kids who could already read all the words pretty well, the teachers just let them do their thing, pointing at the words one by one and pronouncing them. The kids read slowly and rhythmically (‘teleologically’ is the technical term, apparently). At that pace, it wasn’t clear whether they really understood it.

Overcrowding was a problem even in our tutoring groups at first.

Overcrowding was a problem even in our tutoring groups at first.

I started up a conversation with Alpha after watching his kids read through a whole passage that way. Alpha had motioned me over, proudly wanting to demonstrate their abilities. I congratulated everyone, but then I started talking to him about how it’s progress but they’ve still got a long way to go, which means a lot of practice with the texts we’re writing now (and a lot of opportunities for the kids themselves to write, which almost never happens in Haitian schools. But one thing of a time).

Alpha agreed, but then he called me over to his desk to show me something else. “Take a look at these attendance records,” he said, handing me a report. Flipping through, I saw 71 kids signed up for first grade. “How many teachers do you have?” I asked. “One,” he said, watching my reaction.

Oh. So that’s the problem.

It doesn’t matter how well we train teachers or how good the books they write are. Okay, those things do matter, but we really can’t start to resolve them until we solve this fundamental issue of too many kids in one class.
I know what’s causing this. There are two free schools in the area: Bernadette’s and the government school, which is actually a long walk out of town because it serves another town, too. Everyone wants to sign up, because they don’t have to pay, and since they’re not paying, there are barely any funds to pay the current teachers, never mind recruiting new ones. And teachers are getting more expensive, because there’s a new mandate that they have to be certified. The mandate would be great, of course, if the necessary education to get one was more affordable.

We brought the group together again to talk about how to resolve the problem. I’d already served as a translator between Bernadette and the American Catholic church that funds her over what money is coming in, what it’s being used for, and how to get more. It won’t be possible to get more from current sources. So, just as a thought exercise, I started asking everyone about different options for making sure kids get more personalized education, beyond just raising money to hire more teachers.

The way things are working now, parents have to do a lot of work at home in order to make sure their kids are prepared. The teachers give out homework that includes learning passages they will have to read in class; the parents who are able to work hard to make sure their kids are pronouncing everything properly. But what about the parents who don’t know how to read, because they grew up as farmers in rural areas where no one went to school? Or the parents who have five or more kids enrolled, and don’t have the time or energy to devote that attention to them? What ends up happening is that the kids with a lot of support at home scrape by, and everyone else just kind of suffers and gets dismissed as “stupid.” Anyway, I get that learning shouldn’t stop when the school-day. I’m not anti-homework. Parents should be involved. But when teachers say things like, “Make sure your parents teach this to you tonight” I can’t help thinking, “Isn’t that your job, to get done in the five hours you have with them?” Kids should be able to pick up the basics while they’re in class, even if they have to practice them later. We’ve got to address this issue of too many students and too few teachers.

We talked about getting older or more advanced students to teach others. Teachers brought up that they’ve tried this technique before with kids within the same class. Sometimes it works, but kids often don’t have the necessary maturity or patience to work with their struggling peers. The older kids have their own curriculum and lessons to focus on, so you can’t count on them being able to head into the younger classrooms to help out.

There are schools that run apprenticeship programs, where teachers in training assist in order to get experience, but those take time and effort to set up. Lascahobas got its own teacher training institution in 2009; there’s also one over in Papaye, an hour or so away. They’ve had requests to receive apprentices before, but for extremely short periods of time – 2 weeks. At that point, it’s not worth the paperwork to get someone to come in, since they’ll be leaving so quickly.

We moved on to the idea of recruiting community members to come in. First of all, I had to establish what level of education they might have. Haitian schools just started instructing students in Creole literacy, so it’s likely that the adults in Lascahobas weren’t exposed to it when they were in school. From what the teachers told me, I came to the general conclusion that many in people know “how to read”, but that doesn’t always mean what you might assume it means. They know the letters and the sounds they make, and even though they didn’t learn Creole in school they don’t have too many issues with it because the letters are almost the same as French and it’s their language after all. But, they have a lot of trouble with writing, and they may or may not use their reading skills in their daily life. Books are scarce here, especially if you’re looking for something beyond religious texts. There is a newspaper, but I’m not sure how you’d go about getting it delivered from the capital, or what group of people would normally go to the trouble of getting it. Computers and phones involve tons of reading and writing, of course, but not everyone uses them regularly.

Anyway, even if you limit it to just making sure kids can write letters and pronounce them, which many people would be able to do even if they can’t read something at an advanced level, there’s still the problem of how you motivate your tutors. Sure, many people don’t have jobs and seem to spend all day standing around chatting, but how do you convince them that sitting with a kid is a better use of their time, especially if you’re asking them to do it without receiving any compensation in return? I talked to some members of our group who were active in churches, and asked them what it is about churches that enables them to mobilize people to get together and do something for free. They pointed out that things like planning a party or knocking on doors aren’t huge commitments. When people are doing a campaign or an event, there’s a fixed start and end date in mind, and it’s only a few days that they’re occupying anyone. We’re asking for people to keep coming for a month or more.

Finally, dividing the schoolday into two sections so that all the groups aren’t coming at the same time might work, but good luck selling everyone on it. People are very accustomed to the schedule they keep now – they’ve got 1 hour for each subject, so reducing the time the kids spend in school would somehow mean reducing the amount of time they spend on each subject. Theoretically, having less kids means you can spend less time on a subject because you’re teaching more efficiently with a smaller group, but I really can’t say by how much. Haitian schoolchildren are generally much more obedient than American children, for better or for worse. I’m not sure reducing numbers would actually reduce the amount of time teachers have to spend on discipline. It would increase learning, but good luck making anyone adapt to it and stick to it long enough to actually see that. Of course, you could divide the class into two sections that come at different times without reducing the time anyone’s spending in school – but when you’re asking the teachers to work for 10 hours a day rather than 5, you have to pay them more, and we’re back where we started.

But that’s what happens when you start trying to address the root of the problem – there are no easy answers; just steps you take to get closer to something that works. And each step ends up taking a lot of courage and konpreyansyon (a Creole word businesses use when apologizing to their clients for inconveniences) on everyone’s part. But the first step is listening to what people have to say.

After that discussion and a big lunch, we got back into writing. Some of the teachers had to go to take exams, and the ones who were left behind were a little reluctant to get started – they’d been hoping to end early after a few days of hard work. I rallied the troops by talking about how the more texts I have, the better I’ll be able to evaluate how useful this program is and get funding for it to continue. Having just consumed an energy drink. I was perfectly content to bounce around the room reading over people’s shoulders and joking about what I saw. With the smaller group, there was a more intimate atmosphere that lent itself better to sharing. By the end of the afternoon session, I was really happy we’d all stuck around to make something. And, of course, when you’ve got a budget and you’re able to pay people for their efforts, it’s a lot easier to convince them to keep going. Now that the writing part’s done, we’re just going to need a bigger budget for the teaching part…

Third Workshop Day: Putting Words on Screens

By the third day of the workshop, we were finally ready to start writing. I figured it might be easier to have a conversation about how to go about doing that if everyone was looking at the same list, so we pulled up Level 5: words that include l, t, p, and r, along with all the vowels. I didn’t give the teachers many directions: partly because I wasn’t sure how to advise them, partly because I wanted to see what they’d come up with on their own. I just said, “Write a story using these words.” But this was also after a couple of long discussions about the importance of using syllables that end in vowels and letters that kids already know in order to make the process of tackling text easier.

People seemed to grasp the concept quickly, and didn’t struggle too much with selecting words from the list to get their thoughts across. They produced simple texts that were more collections of phrases than a genuine story, frequently repeating sounds and using words chosen from the list. I was pretty happy with how well things were going. Like always, I went into this with no real expectations, but I came out pleasantly surprised all the same.

After lunch, we started assigning people to different levels of words. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of working at a higher level versus a lower level. The higher one has more words to choose from, but that freedom can also be daunting for some writers, plus the text they produce has to be longer because the kids are more accustomed to reading at that point. Within the lower levels, you have less room to maneuver but some teachers enjoy the problem of turning a short list of words into something that makes sense. It was a question of preference.

By this point, I had some idea about what certain people would like – I knew Michel-ange and Petiville would be more comfortable at the higher levels, whereas Raymond and Alpha’s techniques of drawing heavily from the lists shone best at the lower levels. Most everyone else fell somewhere in the middle – some chose something a little higher up than I thought would suit them, but I let them go ahead with it. Interestingly, sometimes my thoughts came down to a question of typing ability. No one in the room could actually type without looking at the keyboard, but some were definitely faster than others based on experience. That group I was more comfortable allowing to work at the higher levels because I knew they would be writing words out more often than clicking on the words from the lists.

But, as the workshop progressed, even the people who had never used the computers before used lot of progress. We didn’t exactly have a moment before we began where I sat them down and explained, “This is how you do a capital letter. This is how you do an accent. This is how you do a period.” But they asked those questions throughout the workshop when they needed them answered, and then continued to use what they learned in the next story they wrote. I was constantly surprised, scrolling through the finished products, how much some of the writers had managed to put on the page.

Nick explaining the solution to the latest technical problem.

Nick explaining the solution to the latest technical problem.

Unfortunately, we also ended up suffering a lot of technical issues during this session. Nick was working on the electrical system, so I wasn’t able to charge as many computers as I’d expected to be able to and batteries were running low. Connecting to the server was also unexpectedly difficult. Nick went on a walk at one point, right before some of the computers started refusing to connect. I had to call him on the road and pull up a terminal in order to get things established again. It was frustrating, but it didn’t seem to mess anyone up too much as long as their computer wasn’t the one having issues. Then, later that night, I checked the server for the texts the teachers had written and realized barely anything had been saved, because I didn’t realize I should be telling teachers to press the button after every few sentences or so. All that work, down the drain.

In the end, working with technology is frustrating, especially in our situation where we’re using computers that are over half a decade old and prone to battery, wireless, and a host of other problems. It’s easy to get fed up with our green and white machines at times. The teachers specifically asked me why I didn’t buy regular ol’ laptops for the project, and although I could reel off a list of advantages and disadvantages for them, in the back of my mind I was a little tempted to seek out something that would be a little faster and larger. But, how would you power it? Bigger and better often means more electricity. And aren’t the durable ones that will actually last in a long time in this environment much more expensive than the dinky cheap ones that will break within a month?

I don’t have answers to all those questions (and many more), and I know we probably never will. This is an iterative process, where we get slightly better each time (as long as we have the funding, of course). But there’s a part of me that’s just a little frustrated to be spending our time talking about which computers to buy instead of which books to write on them. For me, the latter is a much more interesting question. Luckily, I’m working with people who care a lot about the former, so they’re willing to tell me which parts to buy at Home Depot or what commands to type in the terminal to get everything up and running. If this thing wasn’t a group effort, I of course would have given up long before now.

Second Workshop Day: ‘Uit’ or ‘Wit’?

The second day of the workshop, we had to get into the nitty-gritty of how to build a phonics system pretty early on. I got out the XO laptops and hooked everyone up to the server, where we’d stored a copy of our wordlist for them to look at. After some difficulties connecting (for some, it was their first time using a computer, and of course the XO ones take some getting used to) everyone was looking.

I started by explaining the principles behind its generation. We wanted words with only two syllables, because shorter is better for beginning readers. Oh, and each syllable should end on a vowel, because that’s how they do it in some Spanish-speaking countries and they’re easier to sound out than the ones that end on a consonant. Plus, we should make sure the words contain only letters the kids have already learned in class. I didn’t know the order they used in Haiti, so we generated our order for presenting the different consonants based on their frequency within our two-syllable, open-syllable wordlist. Haitian Creole has ten vowels (plus y and w) and I wasn’t quite sure how soon to introduce all of them. So we started out with those two issues.

But first, we had something bigger to resolve. The teaches were interested in doing all ten vowels right from the start, but the government program favors consonants and only starts with four vowels. Bernadette, the school’s accountant and the one who recruits foreigners like me to help out, sat in on many of the discussions and was worried when she heard teachers talking about how they wanted to diverge from the government-mandated program. If the teachers chose to do things differently, wouldn’t their kids end up behind everyone else and get lower scores?

We talked about the idea that teachers know their kids better than the government and should adjust and adapt based on what works best for them, and some of the best schools come up with their own programs and follow them confidently – even the government-funded schools don’t stick completely to the plan. Of course, that means the school director has to have a little bit of faith in their capabilities and give them the space to do their job. It’s an issue that we’re constantly considering back at home, and I told everyone there’s no easy answer. Bernadette remembered that “the government doesn’t give us any money anyway – what can they do if we decide not to follow them?’ and we kept moving forward.

Having decided to introduce “all twelve vowels” from the start, we consulted one of the textbooks for consonant-order. On this point, no one seemed to mind following the government program, because apparently one consonant is more or less as good as another. Of course the book listed ten vowels and two demi-vowels at the front, which generated our first debate about which one was “correct.” So far, these debates have been really entertaining and educational for me – they’ve really impressed me so far with their knowledge. When I say “consonant” they know what I’m talking about, and when I make a mistake and give “c” as an example of one they’re quick to remind me that “C isn’t actually a consonant in Creole. Just like ‘q’ or ‘x’; it only exists in loan words.” But now we were getting into areas where there wasn’t unanimous agreement. Over the question of ‘w’, for example, we never quite resolved whether you spell words with ‘w’. “Eight” is written “uit,” but then “swit” sounds almost the same. It might just be a case of something being an exception to the rule, but if anyone knows what the rule might be, I’d love to hear it.

During lunchbreak, Nick rewrote the script to fit in our six new vowels. I’d been telling the teachers throughout the workshop that if they want to change anything it’s entirely possible, because our programmer’s right there in the next room. I knew that was setting pretty high expectations, but luckily, Nick lived up to them (for the most part).

We took a look at the words to make sure everyone was satisfied with how things looked. Then, I had everyone pull up the software itself, to give us feedback on some changes we could make. Again, I emphasized how easy it should be to change something they didn’t like: “If you’d rather this button be green than blue, Nick can just go into the code and find where it says ‘blue’ and change it. Now, something a little more complicated will be a little harder for him, but they can still do it.” It was a lot of fun to make those kinds of promises and empower the participants – but I knew even as the words were leaving my mouth that everything depended on what Nick was actually able to pull off.

This first time around, the teachers mostly used the software to search up different words, seeing the two-syllable, open-vowel, consonant-restricted system we’d been discussing this whole time in action. They used the search feature to look up whether a word met those qualifications. People were surprised to find things like “voudou” inside – I’m guessing they searched for the word to figure out exactly how much the dictionary we used as the basis of the software filters words for child-appropriateness.

One thing we noticed during this demo was that the software was extremely slow. The XO laptops don’t have much processing power, since they’re so old, and the computer was scanning through a lot of words in order to find the ones that met our criteria. Nick took a look at what was going on and concluded that it was just a matter of making processes like searching more streamlined. Some of the teachers had enough technical competence to suggest making the program into a local app, stored on the computer, instead of something hosted on the server. That way, no one would have to connect to a separate device in order to write a story.

We wrapped up with those worries about how to make improvements to the software in the back of my mind. At the same time, I was looking forward to the next day of the workshop, when we’d actually be able to get down to writing.

First Workshop Day: Open Mouths

Bernadette, my community partner here, brought together a really good group for me: 4 men, 4 women, all in their 20s. They live here in Lascahobas (or in the ‘outside’ areas); 7 work as teachers at Bernadette’s school or another and one is a nurse. Many are studying professionally themselves – several had to juggle the workshop session with exams. I had to get to know everyone – the last time I was in Lascahobas, I met most of the guys through my work with the computer program in the school, but we were so busy that I didn’t get to spend much time getting to know them.

Kids waiting outside classrooms for exams to start.

Kids waiting outside classrooms for exams to start.

Our first meeting, we had a general discussion about the workshop and its purpose, without going into too much detail about the software itself and probably spending too much time talking about plans for future expansion (gotta have something to look forward to, right?). Everyone participated, but naturally some ended up talking more than others.

We started the conversation talking about how they’re currently teaching reading and what results those techniques are getting. The teachers brought up some really good points, like using images and moving from basic to more complex. I learned the term ‘fe maryaj’ (make marriage), when you put two letters together to make a sound or a syllable. I’ve seen it used before in Haitian classrooms to teach letter sounds, by pairing each consonant with vowels. The teachers in Lascahobas use this system too, introducing one sound per class.

After all this discussion about whether or not kids were grasping these lessons, someone pointed out that, “Kids have no problem reading and understanding Creole.” By the end of third grade, they’ve had enough practice that it isn’t a struggle anymore. Of course, French is another story. One teacher pointed out that there aren’t any “let bebe” (baby letters) in Creole, but there are tons in French…I figured out that they meant “silent letters”, letters that you use to spell the word but don’t actually pronounce. Another mentioned that you can speak Creole with your “bouch ouvri” (mouth open), meaning that many of the syllables end with vowels rather than consonants, like Spanish or Japanese.

Alpha, a workshop participant and teacher but also the school director, jumped in with a reminder that teachers have to make sure kids can read and write in French whether they like it or not, even in the early grades, because the exams are in French. Since the teachers had just administered the exams that morning, they had a lot to say about the topic. The teachers who work with the younger students pointed out that since the exams are oral, the kids don’t actually have to read anything – yes, they make marks on paper, but the teacher reads the question and then the options in order, so as long as they’re listening carefully it doesn’t matter whether they can actually read the options on paper. The teachers repeat the questions until the kids are ready to move on – they didn’t seem concerned about finishing within any kind of time limit, maybe because the exams themselves were fairly short.

Alpha disagreed with the conclusion that reading in French isn’t unnecessary until later on, but the discussion pressed forward into more dangerous territory: if kids read better in Creole than French, why not just write all the textbooks in French so they can understand them? I was really interested to hear what everyone had to say, of course – if people think Creole’s value is limited, they’re not going to want to be a part of the project. But, most people claimed to be on board with the idea of using more Creole in school, especially for writing and reading. Michel-ange delivered several impassioned speeches, bringing up examples of kids singing songs but not understanding the words or learning about things relevant to their lives but not making the connection (sucre and sik both mean ‘sugar’ but are prononced slightly differently; if you hear ‘sucre’ in chemistry class will you recognize it as the ‘sik’ your mother used to sweeten her coffee in the morning?). She also pointed out that ‘every country in the world gets to learn in its own language’ – not true, but there are certainly enough to make an argument. As much as I tried to encourage people with differing opinions to speak up, everyone actually seemed to agree with these concepts that I’d been thinking might be controversial. Even Alpha, who was reminding teachers to focus on French before, wanted to see more books in Creole. Maybe just because there’s a difference between what helps kids pass exams and what helps them learn. As a school director, it’s part of his job to be concerned about exam results, but now that we’d moved on to what might be best in general he could express a different opinion. Or maybe he was just saying what I wanted to hear.

It was also interesting that when teachers talked about what books would be written and how, the first thing that came to mind was history and the social sciences, rather than something like science or math. Maybe it was just because they’d seen them before, but everyone seemed to get the concept that it’s useful to learn about the history of your country in your own language. “The kids here don’t know what the colors on the flag represent,” one teacher lamented. “Over in Santo Domingo, the Dominicans know.” We’re close enough to the border (one hour away) that they can make those kinds of comparisons.

After that, we got into the concept of how we could convince other people to start using our books once we’d created them – whether we could get the government on our side, start up a publishing business, or get our hands on some grants. I told everyone the first step is to actually produce something and make sure it works, but it was interesting to hear their perspectives on how to move forward. People asked me straight-up, “Do you think your country will really support books in Creole?” I talked to them about initiatives like ToTaL that have been pushing it, but I also emphasized that in my opinion we should make sure Haitians are involved at every stage.

After that, we wrapped things up and confirmed a time for meeting the next day. I left feeling excited about how things went – although, like most things I do, I had tried to go into it with no expectations, I was definitely surprised about how well-aligned my ideas were with theirs. Of course, we hadn’t gotten started on the actual application of these supposedly-agreed-upon principles, and we were all still feeling each other out, trying to decide what it would be safe to say and how we could work together.