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.

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