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.

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