Classroom Observations, Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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