Yesterday, I visited the 4th graders and the 6th graders at EFACAP, the last two grades I had on my plate at that school.
There were 49 4th graders, most of the girls (30 girls and 19 boys). They were starting a lesson on Creole reading when I walked in . First, the teacher reminded the students of the rules they’re supposed to follow: be quiet, follow the lesson, and don’t misbehave. Then, she asked the students what song they wanted to sing. Some suggested the “Welcome” song, but since I’d already been introduced and seated the teacher had them do “Things that Have Wings Fly” instead. The song involved a lot of jumping, clapping, and shouting, and everyone clearly enjoyed it.
After the song, the kids turned their attention to the text on the board. The teacher told them they had five minutes to read with “with your eyes” (silently). The text was three paragraphs about the water cycle, introducing the concept of evaporation, moving on to the clouds, and briefly touching on underground water sources towards the very end.
Once everyone was done reading, the teacher told them she was going to ask some questions to “verify that you read it.” First, she asked “What does riverwater do when the sun dries it?” One student correctly answered “It goes up to the sky.” That was the correct answer; after that the teacher asked where the student had found the answer. Everyone said “the second paragraph” and she called one student up to touch it on the board.
Next, the teacher asked everyone here the title was. It was too high for the person who came up to touch it, but it was clear that they knew what they were pointing at. The question “How many paragraphs do you see?” was a little trickier. Earlier, when they said the answer was in the second paragraph, she didn’t correct them, even though it was actually in the third paragraph. Plus, the concept of paragraphs was a little confusing because the information was in two columns (the board’s not tall enough to do the whole thing straight down) and the second paragraph was split between the columns. Also, the first paragraph was only one sentence long, offering an introduction to the passage.
After clarifying that there were, in fact, three paragraphs, the teacher asked the class to identify where the first paragraph starts. This time, they correctly recognized that a “blank space” (indent) is the thing you’re supposed to be looking for. The teacher explained that the blank space is called “alineya” and wrote it on the board.
Next, she read the text out loud for everyone once. Then, she asked for a volunteer who could “read the same way.” She announced that she would choose a boy. One of the boys stood up and started off confidently, but he stumbled over a word and skipped a line, losing his place. The teacher cut him off and asked the class “Did he start off the same way as me?” The class answered “no”, and the teacher said she was going to choose a girl this time, stating that a girl would be able to read the same as her because they’re both girls.
The girl did better, making it most of the way through. The teacher only had one mistake to point out: the girl hadn’t paused long enough on one of the commas. Then, the teacher announced that she needed “an even better reader.” This time, she let the girl go all the way through. But, at the end, when she asked the class “did she read well?” the answer was no. According to the students, the girl had been “too shy” – she read too slowly, and she didn’t read loud enough.
The teacher also corrected the girl’s pronunciation of some words. The girl had read the nasal vowels in “andedan” and “enpe” with a French pronunciation. The teacher had the whole class practice reading them with a Creole pronunciation, reminding everyone that “We don’t close our mouth when we’re reading Creole.”
Then, the class as a whole had to read the whole passage. They made a few minor mistakes. For example, some kids read “after a little time” instead of “after a time” because you hear “little time” more frequently when people are talking. There was one section with three elements strung together by commas – the other girl messed up there earlier. When the class as a whole messed up again, I took a closer look. The section went “water vapor, clouds, and it goes.” I could see how it would be confusing. The first two parts are nouns, and then all of a sudden it transitions to a sentence with a verb.
The teacher focused her attention on making sure the kids paused properly at the periods, using her stick and reading through the last paragraph herself to show them what she meant. Then, she asked a row to read through the first paragraph. The first row, where almost all the guys in the class were sitting, got off easy – the first paragraph was much shorter.
Next, she told the first row that she would point to individual words and call on individual students to read them. One of the boys messed up by reading “water vapor” instead of just “water” when she pointed to water.
The second row was responsible for the second paragraph. This time, the activity for individual students consisted of erasing one or two words from the section and calling up students to write. She erased the word “disappear” and asked a girl to come up and rewrite it. But, the girl forgot which way the accent went, so the teacher called up someone else to write the word again andfix it.
The third row had to come up and write a whole sentence. The sentence was “The ground receives all the water that it lost.” The student she called up to do it couldn’t remember the whole thing, so the teacher had the class say it out loud for him. But, when he wrote the last words, he spelled it “pediya” instead of “pedi a.” One kid burst out “It’s not like that, no!” The teacher called on another kid (not the outburster) to come up and correct the phrase. They were supposed to underline the previous student’s mistakes and then write the phrase again.
Once the second student had finished writing the correction, the teacher said “We’ll say ‘yes’ but we won’t clap our hands.” The student had correctly fixed the other’s mistakes, but they had left out a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and the spaces in between their words weren’t big enough.
The teacher finished up the lesson by asking students to stand up and read individual sections, alternating between boys and girls and then individual students.
After that, I went on to the 6th graders. There were only 27 of them. The teacher asked me whether I wanted to see a Haitian Creole reading activity; I told him to do whatever he wanted but that’s what they ended up doing. There were only students in this class; I’m guessing a lot drop out before this point.
The teacher got the kids’ attention by telling them “If you like to work, stand up” and having them sit down and stand up several times. Then, he had the kids get out their textbooks. There were three kids to a bench, and each bench had one copy of the book that the kids all shared. First, the teacher asked them to look at the book and talk about what they saw. Then, he had them read the story, but it was one and a half full-sized pages with no pictures. No one had a chance to get all the way through it. That was evident, because when the teacher asked “What characters are they talking about?” not everyone understood the relationship between the main character (Bouki) and the woman he was talking to (his wife).
The teacher called on a girl to start reading the story to the class. It opens with a conversation between Bouki and his wife, and you’ve got to put lots of expression in. The girl did a good job, correctly articulating words like “hen” (it translates to: “Huh?!”). Once she’d gotten through the whole thing, the teacher had different rows read different parts. One row only had five boys in it, but they still had to read.
The story itself was modeled after Bouki and Malis, and like many Haitian stories (and good stories in general) it had multiple layers. Bouki’s the dumb one, and Malis is the trickster (yep, his name is supposed to resemble “Malice”). The story opens with Bouki running to tell his wife that their cousin is getting married. The wife doesn’t understand why he’s so stunned about the news: “She’s young, she’s pretty, it’s natural that she’d find a man one day.” Then she finds out that this just isn’t any man – it’s the deputy of Leogane. The wife’s impressed, but when Bouki announces that they have been invited to the ceremony, she says: “Of course. You’re her cousin.” Then, Bouki reveals that the president himself is going to be at the ceremony, and even his wife starts wondering what clothes to wear. After all, “you never know.” If they can impress some of the important people at this wedding, Bouki could end up with a good job.
They pick out the best clothes they can find from the catalog, and spend a lot of money on them. The day of the wedding, Bouki lays out his clothes on the bed and goes to get ready. But when he returns, the clothes are gone. Someone has stolen them. He has to wear his old suit, and he’s too ashamed at the wedding to talk to anybody important.
Meanwhile, his nephew, Malis, is dressed to the nines and is making the rounds with everyone. At one point, Bouki gets close enough to see exactly what he’s wearing, and he’s shocked. Malis is wearing his clothes. When Bouki confronts him, Malis explains that he stopped by to borrow the clothes, couldn’t find Bouki, saw them lying on the bed, and borrowed them anyway because he knew Bouki wouldn’t have a problem with it.
Bouki has a few choice words to say under his breath about that. But, he concludes in the last sentence of the story, there’s one thing you have to admit about Malis: no matter what, he always tells the truth.
I didn’t quite know what to think of the story and its presence in a government-issued textbook. On one hand, there’s the emphasis that politicians are very important people. The position “depite” is sort of equivalent to a congressperson here: they’re elected from a local area to serve in Parliament and pass laws. The fact that the president himself went to wedding of one made me wonder whether they’re even more important than that, more than I realized. My community partner here and the woman I stay with, Bernadette, is running for deputy. Should I be treating it like a bigger deal than it is, even though I’m already treating it like a big deal? Then again, Leogane is closer to the capital, and it’s a more urban area, so maybe the guy coming from there would naturally get more attention. Plus, in the end, it’s just a story.
And even though they’re emphasizing that politicians are important, at the same time they’re blatantly stating that if you have family connections and you dress nice at the wedding you can get a job, whether you deserve it or not – outright nepotism. Or maybe they’re not stating that. Maybe the whole point of the story is that the Bouki was foolish enough to invest all his money in a nice suit, thinking it would get him somewhere, instead of just working hard. But if the elites don’t want the peasants to aspire to be like them, what do they want them to aspire to? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question.
All that was enough to make me interested in looking up the author. Her name is Odette Ray Fonbrun, and she came from one of Haiti’s prominent families but lived in exile during the dictatorship years. She was a constant advocate for education, including the use of Creole in schools. This particular story was translated from her French version, but she has others that were written in Creole.
We didn’t actually talk about any of this in class. The first thing the teacher asked the students was whether there were any words from the passage that confused them. The class volunteered “odasye”, “sekretedeta”, “metdam”, “byen chik”, “katalog”, “and “mes.” “Odasye” translates directly to “audacious”; the kids had difficulty defining it but everyone seemed to know what it meant. “Sekretedeta” means “secretary of state.” No one knew what they actually do; the teacher tried to explain that every minister has one to assist them. “Metdam” is one of the terms Bouki calls Malis after he finds out Malis took his clothes; it has roughly the same meaning as “audacious.” “Byen chik” translates to “very chique” – “chique” is a French term that means cute and fashionable; it describes how Malis looked at the marriage. A “katalog” is a “catalog;” people in this town are more likely to buy their clothes from a heap at a market stall than from a printed catalog, but most people seemed to know what they were. Finally “mes” means “mass,” a Catholic church service. Not everyone knew what it meant because some people in the class are Protestant (there aren’t many people in Haiti who don’t go to church at all – you’re either Catholic or Protestant, and I guess Jehovah’s Witness can be another category by itself). Actually, it seemed like a lot of these words were terms the kids knew or could guess about, but they needed to volunteer something for discussion when the teacher asked what was difficult to understand, so they volunteered these.
After the terms were all defined, the teacher started posing questions – he just read the ones that accompanied the text right below it. Things like “Why did Bouki try to hide during the wedding?” They didn’t get very far through the questions – some of them were really interesting, like “Do you agree that what Malis did was wrong?” Instead, the teacher had some students read sections out loud. He also asked them how they’d feel if they got all their nice stuff ready and then something came along and messed it up. He gave his own example: “A kid could spill sauce all over your nice clothes.” I have no idea whether it actually came from his personal life or not, but it made the students laugh.
After some read-alouds, the teacher asked for volunteers to give a summary of the passage. Some kids started trying to recite it from memory (we’d read it enough times by then) or didn’t start from the beginning. The teacher got frustrated and asked them “Do you understand what I want?” but didn’t really explain why the first kids he called on had gotten it wrong. Finally, one of the girls proceeded to give a long and detailed summary of events, right from the beginning and in her own words. The teacher approved of that, asking the class “What does she deserve?” Apparently, she deserved applause.
By then, the time for reading was up. The teacher told everyone that they’d continue with the questions again next class (Friday, because Thursday was a holiday here).