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…


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