Classroom Observations Day 3

On Wednesday we returned to the Catholic school and went to the second grade class. Second grade had 48 students and one male teacher, Jean Fritz. They were starting a review of place values and addition when we arrived.

Instead of ignoring us and teaching the class, as the other teachers had done after we introduced ourselves and sat down, the teacher spoke directly to us about what was going on: “The kids have been learning addition and subtraction – they know the numbers, the signs, and how to set up problems.” I was worried he was going to teach the whole lesson like that, but then he wrote an equation on the board (three-digit numbers, in a horizontal line, like this: 456 + 281 =) and called a student up to solve it.

The girl seemed hesitant, but she did fine. First, she put the numbers vertically, one on top of the other, and then she added them, remembering to carry the 1. She recited what she was doing as she was doing it – the teacher probably taught her the exact phrases to use for the explanation, because she said everything like she’d said it before (5 and 8 are 13, put the 3 there and put the 1 there). The teacher told her to “Talk louder” as she solved the problem, but since she made no mistakes he had no other comments. Lydia mentioned that it was the first time someone had been called up to the board to really work through something. Sometimes when they’re doing reading they call kids up to underline certain letters, but she felt like this was giving the students a larger opportunity to contribute. I mentioned that math as a subject lends itself more to practice problems on the board than the others – which is great, even if they’re not doing much beyond working through something the teacher already set up.

The next thing they did was place value. The teacher wrote some three-digit numbers on the board and explained to us (me and Lydia) the concept of breaking them down into the ones, tens, and hundreds place. Again, I was worried he was going to keep on like that, but then he got the class to do some examples out loud together, with him writing the numbers that the class said on the board.

After that, they moved on to something slightly more confusing. The teacher drew a box below the number, and told the class that one triangle represents a hundred. He asked the students how many triangles would be needed to represent the number. I guess it was a good way of visualizing what place values actually mean in a different way, but it seemed to me more like the sort of thing you would introduce when you were presenting the concept, instead of something you would expect them to keep doing even after they understood the idea and were just reviewing. However, it’s possible that I’m overestimating how well students understand this idea even after it’s been presented multiple times in different ways, and the teacher was following what was in the textbook.

Finally, the teacher wrote some three-digit addition problems on the board, and told the class to get out their notebooks and start doing them. Glancing at them, I remembered how much I hated doing them when I was little – that kind of rote busy-work especially gets on my nerves because in my mind it’s unnecessary now that everyone’s walking around with a calculator in their hand (yes, even Haitians have cell phones). I don’t think it helps the kids grasp the math better beyond giving them additional practice at adding numbers, working through a problem patiently, and focusing – all of which are beneficial, but couldn’t we do it in a different way? The computers have games on them, for example, where you’re shooting down meteors, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about.

I’m more interested in something like setting up this information as a word problems. Everyone hates them just as much as busywork, but I think the reasoning is different – they hate them because they actually require you to think, instead of just mindlessly following a process. We asked the teacher whether he actually gives the kids that sort of thing. He had two responses. First, they use it more for something like multiplication (which the second-graders have been exposed to, but won’t really start doing until third grade), because the idea of multiplying can be more difficult to get across without concrete examples. Also, since the kids are only in second grade, the teacher felt that word problems would be too difficult for them to both read and reason through. According to him, they’re not yet at that level, mentally. I can sort of accept that, but then I went on to ask him how long they had been practicing this particular method of doing addition and subtraction. He explained they’ve been doing it since November. Again, I may be underestimating how long it takes the kids to learn this, but I think it makes no sense to keep practicing this without thinking of a way to reframe it, through a word problem or something else. At this point, it seems like they’re just rehearsing, instead of actually learning. Maybe he just wants to make sure their skills are solid before the exam coming up next month, but you can only repeat these lessons so many times before the repetition stops being beneficial.

Once we were done asking the teacher question, we started moving through the room to see how the kids do their work. We were disappointed to notice that even after a few minutes most of the kids had not yet started on the actual math problems – they were too busy painstakingly copying the cursive on the board that explained the lesson’s title, date, and objective. That’s something that happens in U.S. classrooms, too – you want kids to label their work, both to make it easier to grade and also to get them used to following a system. But, it really seemed to be delaying the kids’ actual practice. Also, most of the kids seemed to be at work, but we noticed one boy who didn’t have a pencil or pen, even though he had a notebook. The teacher was standing near him several times and must have seen that the boy hadn’t started because he didn’t have a pencil, but ten minutes passed before the kid was able to start (not because the teacher gave him a pencil, but because he got one from a classmate). Now, we don’t know the story here – maybe the kid had forgotten his pencil ten times in a row, and the teacher told him the next time he came he’d be in big trouble, and this was the big trouble. We didn’t want to ask because it was our first time meeting the teacher, who we’ll be working with for a few weeks, and we didn’t want to make him feel like we were judging him too harshly. But, it’s definitely something I’ll be interested in knowing the full story behind later, because it was sort of a strange scenario to see.

After that, we left the Catholic school and headed up the hill to Bernadette’s school. It’s technically called Ecole Mixte Action Fraternelle, and that’s the name she uses, but most people in the town just call it “Bernadette’s school.” The international orgs working with it call it “AFAL school,” because that’s the name of the women activist group that started it. Bernadette is AFAL’s founder and president, and we first got involved in Lascahobas through the group’s connection with a Virginia church. This is my third time working with Bernadette and her school in Lascahobas, but actually, it was my first time observing classes, because the other two trips took place during vacations (summer and winter).

First, we stopped in with a 1st-grade teacher named Emyann. She was working with 73 students, and they were doing a French reading lesson.

The teacher wrote the letter “c” on the board along with some vowels. We’ve seen this before – it’s the “tying” process that many teachers here use to help students match consonants with vowels to make syllables. The kids had been taught to call the letter c “cuckoo” instead of by its name, maybe because that word helps them remember its sound. They probably know the actual name, but in this exercise they used “cuckoo”, as in: “‘Cuckoo’ tied with ‘a’ makes ‘ca'” and so on for the rest of the vowels.

After the recitation, the teacher started writing some syllables on the board for the kids to practice reading. This class was less disciplined than others we’d been in – they immediately started talking when she turned around. As the kids read through the syllables, I found myself wondering whether they actually know any words with these sounds. These are all French combinations – in Creole many of the vowels are pronounced differently – and since these kids are only first graders they might not know enough words in French to be able to associate a particular sound and letter combination with a word. You can’t use things like A is for Apple, because they might not know the French word for apple.

Anyway, the teacher told the kids to get out their notebooks and start on a writing exercise, which of course I was curious about. She wrote the phrase “La pipe de mon pere” (my father’s pipe) on the board several times, emphasizing the loops in the cursive letters. She read the phrase out loud for them, but did not translate it. Then, the students were supposed to start copying the phrase down on their own sheets of paper, to improve handwriting.

Several raised their hands to announce, “Madam, I don’t have a notebook” and the teacher passed out paper for them to write on. She also told the kids that they should work hard on their writing, in order to impress us, the visitors. Several students took that as an opportunity to get out of their seats and come up to show us their pages. It looked like many of the students were copying word by word (i.e., writing “la” three times in a vertical column) instead of writing the whole phrase out several times. Most of their handwriting was pretty good, especially because they were writing on ordinary lined paper in a fairly small font. But, many of them forgot the accent on “pere” – which means they don’t know the word and the rules of pronunciation well enough to realize that without the accent it’s being spelled wrong. This isn’t like English spelling, where there are multiple ways you might spell a word and only one’s right. In other languages, the sounds are consistent. Sometimes a sound is represented by a letter, and other times it’s a combination of letters, but you’re not going to get two words that are spelled almost the same but pronounced completely differently (like the “ough” sound in tough and through).

It wasn’t clear how many sentences the kids were supposed to do before they were done – some did only three, while others covered the whole page. The teacher asked the class several times whether they were finished, emphasizing each time they said no that they should hurry up – it was clear she wanted to move on to something else. The teacher attempted to walk up and down the roads to monitor the students’ progress, but the chairs and tables were pushed so close together that she actually had very little space to move.

As things were wrapping up, we asked the teacher whether this is the only writing practice students get, and she explained that they also write things down when they have to answer questions about the stories they read. But, they don’t ever do anything original – no one makes up their own stories or tells about something true from their own life. The teacher commented that the kids are really at “too low a level” to be expected to do that.

Next, we went to Ludia’s second-grade classroom. Ludia was one of the teachers who participated in the December workshop, so I knew her already. She had 74 kids in her classroom, and they were working on Creole reading.

First, Ludia took the time to talk to me after my introduction speech, asking “Did you forget me?” Again, I worried that she was going to be more interested in me than teaching her lesson (I always worry when I’m doing classroom observations that I’ll be a distraction). But, then Ludia turned around and started writing the objective on the board. First, she wrote that the subject was “Creole.” Then, after looking at it for a moment, she erased it and put “Kreyol.” (Creole is the French term, whereas Kreyol is how it’s actually spelled in Haitian Creole itself. Technically, creole alone would be incorrect in French – a “creole” is a type of language that emerged from a pidgin, so you’d have to specify “Haitian Creole” just like we do in English). After that interesting start, Ludia pulled a bannann (a banana-like fruit) out of her bag and held it up in front of the class.

Of course, everyone started giggling. Why was the teacher holding up a bannann? Ludia told all the kids to stop laughing and be quiet – she hadn’t asked her question yet. The question ended up being “What do I have here?” Obviously everyone knew what a bannann was – they grow in the area and folks eat them all the time. But, Ludia took the time to ask the question, wait for the kids to raise their hands, and then announce that she was calling on a girl to answer the question – all of that, just to confirm what everyone already knew, that she had a bannann in her hands. After that, she went through the process again, with the same question, this time with a boy. Then she asked a few more people, and then the class as a whole. Finally, everyone was sure that it was a bannann, and we were ready to move on.

Ludia wrote the phrase “Loudia gen yon bannann” on the board. She asked the kids to read the sentence, then she asked them some questions. “Who has the bannann?” “Is this a word or a sentence that I have written here?” “What do people do with bannann?” “Do you cook it like this?”

After that, Ludia announced that she was going to tell the kids a story. She gave them something that sounded like it was from one of the government textbooks, in which the word “ann” was repeated a lot. The kids correctly identified “ann” as the sound that was most emphasized in the passage.

Ludia wrote the word “bannann” on the board and told the kids to listen closely. She said she was going to repeat it three times, then went ahead and said “ban-nann” three times, slowly, with pauses and announcements of what number she was on in between.
Next, she asked the kids “What is the last sound you heard in the word?” She called on several students to anwer. One said “nann.” Other said “n.” Apparently, the correct answer was “ann.”

Ludia shared a few more words with “ann” in them, and wrote some on the board along with some that didn’t. The class read through them as a class, and she also called on individuals. Then, she played the game with them where they’re supposed to clap twice if she says a word with “ann” in it. The kids had a little difficulty with some sounds: “anm”, for example, sounds a little similar.
After that, Ludia had kids take out their notebooks and write down the list of words, underlying the “ann” where it occurred. I noted that the kids were faster than average at taking out their stuff – Ludia did a good job of encouraging this by saying “Be fast.” A kid asked whether they needed to write the date on the page before starting on the exercises, and she told them no. She walked up and down the rows while they worked, and frequently made comments like “Is everyone working?” and “The person who’s standing up, what’s going on? Why aren’t you working” and “I”ll look at everyone’s notebook.” After letting them work for a few minutes, she asked if everyone was done. When some people said they weren’t, she told them they had three minutes left: “It’s 12:11 now, so I’ll give you until 12:14.”

On another note, the “ann” sound is one that trips me up a lot, too, but that might just be because I’m not a native speaker. In Creole, a vowel followed by an “n” becomes nasal – some of the air goes through your nose for the vowel sound, and you don’t really pronounce the “n” sound. When I was learning Creole, someone told me that you can negate that rule by putting a second “n” after it – when you do that, it becomes a normal vowel and a normal “n” sound. That’s the way I thought about it for a long time, until I learned that if you want to negate the nasal vowel rule, you should just put an accent over the vowel – it turns out a, e, and o can all have accents. I’d seen the accents for e and o before, but I didn’t realize a had its own. So, it turns out there’s a subtle difference between vowel+n+n and accented-vowel+n, which I never noticed before because I didn’t know how to look for it.

Anyway, my Creole lesson aside, I’m not sure how important it is for kids to be practicing these sound-recognition skills in second grade. The ability to split a word into its parts and answer questions like “What’s the last sound you hear in the word?” is called “phonemic awareness” and it’s important for learning how to read. But, this is sort of a chicken and egg problem. People rarely talk the way we write words on a page – they blend things together, they drop things off at the end, etc. But once you know how to read, you’re more aware of what sounds you’re supposed to be hearing even if people aren’t actually saying them, so I guess you perceive the pronunciation differently. The problem is, you’ll have a lot of trouble learning how to read if you have trouble breaking down words into their parts. These two things are mutually dependent on each other.

So yes, phonemic awareness is important. But, according to some information I’ve read, even though it’s really important you don’t actually need to spend a lot of classtime on it – the recommendation is actually only six hours or so (well, that’s for American classrooms, but still). I brought this up with Ludia when she asked me towards the end of class what I would change about the lesson. I commented that it was something we’d talk about more as a group during the training sessions, and I’m sure we will. Ludia seemed to think that although the second graders know “an” and “n” already, “ann” is a common pattern and deserves to be taught all on its own even after they’ve grasped the concept of stringing letters together and seem to be having no problems with the basic act of reading by pronouncing written letters correctly. I’ve got my own ideas about that, but it’s really a discussion that we’re all going to have together in order to increase the chances that the teachers will actually follow whatever we come up with. Say what you like about groupthink, but my guess is that if we get a roomful of experienced educators together and each gives their honest input, we’ll come up with something effective. I guess the problem is ensuring honest input.

At the end of the lesson, we asked Ludia whether she had slipped the bannann in her bag that morning in preparation for the lesson or thought of it on the spot. Ludia told us she’d planned everything in advance, and showed us detailed notes that went through step by step what she should write on the board and asked the students. She told us that she’d made up the story with the “ann” sound herself, imitating the style of the passages from the government textbook. She also predetermined what words with “ann” in them she should write on the board, so she wouldn’t have to come up with them on the spot.

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