At EFACAP, I stopped by the 5th graders. There were 37 students in the class, arranged in rows. There were more girls (23) than boys (14), and the boys had all decided to sit together in one row apart from the girls. The teacher, Madsen, and I had spoken before – he slipped Lydia and I snacks during our first visit. Madsen was the first teacher who didn’t think it was important for me to introduce myself to the students – he wanted me to sit down right away, until I mentioned it. Once those were done, Madsen asked me whether I wanted him to teach a Creole lesson. I was under the impression that all the teachers have a schedule to follow (some of them have it posted on the wall), so I was surprised there was a choice. I told him to just do what he’d normally do, and he went ahead and did Creole.
The lesson’s topic, which Madsen wrote on the board, was to “produce a writing.” The kids sat quietly while Madsen wrote the objective on the board: “after this lesson, the student should be able to produce a narrative text.”
Madsen started out the lesson by asking about informative texts. The students had studied the subject before, and volunteered that an informative text’s purpose is to inform and explain.
Then, Madsen switched veins completely, and asked the kids “What animal backs away from you, even if you try to feed it?” The answer is apparently “frog.” (Haitians have a thing about frogs – lots of people like to kill them. One of the books in our library advises you not to do that because “Frogs are useful” for the environment). Madsen asked the students what noise a frog makes. Cue a room full of croaking.
Madsen started passing out slips of paper with a paragraph printed on them. I got one, too. The kids immediately started reading as soon as they received one – Madsen told them to make sure to read silently, in their heads. After a moment or so he asked “Has everyone finished?” and everyone apparently was.
The story talked about a frog and a lizard. The lizard tries to block the frog from going in the water, but the frog manages to get past and dive down to the bottom. The lizard follows, but it can’t go all the way down. It gets mad, and decides to never go in the water again. The story sounded kind of like some sort of fable or origin tale (“Why Frogs Swim and Lizards Don’t”). When I asked the teacher after class, he told me it came from a larger book of stories in Haitian Creole.
Next, Madsen started asking questions: “When did this action happen?” “What happened to the lizard?” Then he asked for volunteers to read the story again.
After that, they moved on to the purposes of a text: it can tell a story, inform, or explain. The students decided that this text was telling a story. Madsen asked what led them to that conclusion, and someone volunteered “Because they started out ‘one day’.”
There are other ways of introducing a story. You can say “One time” or “Once upon a time”, among others – these things are called “narrative markers” because they alert you that a story’s coming. Madsen explained that stories also have different elements. You need a time and place, characters, events, and decisions. We used the story as an example: “Who were the characters?” “Frog and lizard.”
Madsen announced that it was time for the kids to “imagine a story and write it.” On the board, he wrote “Sora went to EFACAP. She met with the director.” He asked all the kids to finish, announcing “You’ve got three minutes.” Some of the kids said “Woy” when they heard that, which was what I felt like saying, too – it didn’t seem like enough time, and I was pretty sure they’d never done this before.
I didn’t actually check whether it was three minutes, because I was busy talking with the teacher. I wanted to know whether he’d printed out the stories with his own money (it turns out he did).
Madsen asked for volunteers to read their stories, and picked one of the boys. He seemed unsure about whether to go up front, but he ended up just standing where he was sitting. His story had a twist in it. Sora doesn’t go to EFACAP during the day – she shows up in the middle of the night, and the director says “You can sleep here.” That made all the kids laugh. The director decided to freak Sora out in the middle of the night, so he smashed his head against the wall. That made Sora jump, and she decided “I won’t ever come back here again.”
I thought the story was great, and based on all the laughing so did the class. Madsen went through all the elements one by one, and people agreed that the story has a time, a place, characters, events, and decisions.
Madsen called on a girl to read her story. Sora shows up at EFACAP and has a conversation, then heads into a classroom. Madsen and the class decided that it didn’t really qualify as a story, because nothing really happened and there were no decisions.
Next, Madsen asked the kids to write a “Dog and Cat” story – apparently people are really familiar with that idea. Again, everyone had three minutes. This time, I focused on walking around to monitor how things were going. Some kids leaped right into it, putting down sentences on paper. Others were more hesitant. They looked at their friend’s work instead of making their own, they searched for pencils in their bags, or they shifted around in their seats. I realized that the two examples we’d just seen were unusual – most students weren’t actually making much progress on this story activity.
Madsen told the kids that they’d go ahead and read another time. First, he had a question for them. When I’d talked with him earlier, I mentioned that one of the words in the passage we’d read was spelled wrong. It said “bre”, but the correct spelling is “bwe.” The teacher said it wasn’t too important, because the kids can still make meaning out of “bre” based on the context and the fact that pronunciation can vary, just like it does in English. He said for the most part, the kids can recognize “official” spellings vs. an “author’s” spellings. To illustrate this, he asked the kids at the end of class what word had been spelled wrong in the passage. One girl correctly identified “bre” and she received a notebook.
At the end of class, Madsen asked me what my advice was. Apparently, everyone’s been expecting me to immediately follow up with recommendations after these observations. Whoops. In my head, it’s better to get to know people over the course of these workshops instead of dumping my opinions on them right after we’ve just met each other.
So, I told Madsen that the real issue, as far as I see it, is time. Three minutes isn’t long enough to write a story. The strongest students in the class will be able to do it, but everyone else will fiddle around and dawdle because they don’t want their peers to see that they don’t know what to write. You’ve got to give those students extra attention, which translates into either more time or fewer students – with 37 kids, it’s not possible to monitor everyone.
Next, I went over to the third graders. Fritz was working with 51 students. They were starting a grammar lesson, according to the information on the board. Unlike the other teachers, Fritz added in the amount of time he expected the activity to take: 35 minutes.
Fritz called up a boy to the front of the room and asked “Do we know him?” The boy’s name was Edwine. Edwine started singing, and Fritz wrote “Edwine is singing” on the board. Edwine stayed at the front while Fritz went over how to divide that sentence into a predicate and a verb group (I guess in English we do subject and predicate. For this lesson, subject = predicate and predicate = verb group). After going over that a few times, Fritz asked the class “Should I let him sit down now?” and Edwine went back to his seat.
Next, Fritz called up a girl. Again, the class gave her name, and the girl started doing something – dancing. Fritz wrote that she was dancing on the board, and they went through the same process. You figure it out by framing it as a question: WHO is doing WHAT?
Then, Fritz announced “No one’s going to come up anymore.” Instead, he wrote “Sora ap ekri” on the board. The kids were especially loud about volunteering to tackle that one.
After that, everyone was supposed to get out notebooks. While the kids wrote down the date, he wrote a few more example sentences on the board. The kids had three minutes to copy them down and divide them into the parts. As they worked, Fritz warned them not to let other students copy off what they had.
Once a few kids were finished, Fritz checked their work, which of course prompted everyone else to start announcing that they were done and needed their work checked too.
They did one last example to make sure everyone got the concept. Fritz jumped up and down, which made him look ridiculous and delighted everyone. In addition to the “Fritz is jumping” sentence. He told the kids to write down three sentences of their own and break them down for homework – it’s the first time I heard a teacher actually assign homework during class.
After that, Fritz asked one student to explain what they just did. Then, he turned to me, and asked what advice I had for him based on the lesson. This time I was a little better prepared. We got into a long discussion about how grammar as a topic is hard to make interesting. It’s better, I argued, to get kids used to patterns and sentence structures by having them do a lot of reading and writing on their own, instead of dissecting things on the board. The same principle applies to everything – you can try to take a shortcut by memorizing some rules, but if you really want to develop an understanding you’ve just got to practice. After that he wanted to know a little bit more about the laptop program. I gave him the shortened history – One Laptop Per Child delivered the machines, we came in afterwards and decided to provide more support so the schools actually use them, I decided recently that instead of sponsoring after-school programs we should look at how to put laptops to use during the school-day by integrating them into the classroom and the standard curriculum. Fritz approved of all that, and had a lot to say about the potential for a laptop program, if the right structures get put in place.