Workshop Reflection: First Week

We just got through our first week of workshops, and I’m anxious to see what the teachers will have come Monday. We’ve been groping towards an answer this whole time, and I think we’re getting closer but it all depends on what ends up getting put down on the papers.

There are a total of 18 teachers involved in this project: 6 from each school. We wanted to work with first-, second-, and third-grade teachers, but most schools don’t have more than one class per grade. So, the other three teachers are from the 5th – 9th grade classes. Since there are two teachers for each of the three grades at each school, one teacher ends up working with laptops and the other ends up working with paper books. For this first week, we had everyone together, and we talked about the paper books only.

The first day was my first time meeting most of the teachers outside of their classrooms. Some had worked with me in December, but the rest were new. We started an hour late because not everyone came on time, and two of the schools sent seven people instead of six, prompting confusion about who was actually supposed to be there. I made a few phone calls and got things sorted out. I’d been clear from the beginning about wanting only six, and I think some of the schools were just reluctant to turn others who wanted to participate away, so they made me be the one to say it instead of them.

We started out with a general introduction to the program – how long it would last, how many students each teacher would have, what the general goal was. I admitted that I’m very young and would need a lot of help on their end to pull this off.

I tend to frame a lot of what we’re doing in terms of resources and tools. Instead of criticizing the teachers for the methods I see them using in the classroom, I try to understand why it is they’re using those methods in the first place. When you’ve got more than 50 kids in the classroom and the school day only allows 45 minutes to focus on reading and writing, you’re going to have to adapt to those conditions. You have all the kids read in unison, so you can make sure that they’re all participating and engaged, because there are too many to work with them one on one or divide them into groups. You give them only a few minutes to write down their answers, even though that’s not nearly enough time, because you’ve got to start a new lesson very soon. And in terms of books, all you’ve got is whatever textbooks the government has issued (and often, not everyone in class will have their own copy, so they’ve got to share or you’ve got to write the text on the board so everyone can see it). You’ve got limited options for choosing a story that makes you and the kids happy.

So, when I talk to the teachers about what we’re up to this summer, I talk about all the advantages they’re going to have this time. With 143 books, they’ve got tons of choices for working at different levels, interests, and contexts. With only fifteen kids in front of them, they can do things like divide them up into groups that weren’t possible before. They can spend more time assessing and assisting students individually, because they’ve got less students to keep track of. With two whole hours to devote to just reading and writing, they can get through a whole book every lesson, give the students time to read independently, and allow a reasonable amount of time for writing. The fact that they don’t have to follow the government curriculum means we can focus on reading Creole exclusively instead of presenting French, and there are no objectives beyond reading and writing – it would be great if the kids could tell you the names of some planets after reading a book about the solar system, but that’s not what I want the teachers emphasizing when they read and talk about the book.

That was a big thing that came up during the workshops – the idea of an objective. I laid out the books in front of the teachers, and asked them to choose a few and plan out lessons and activities for them. I said I didn’t want to give them too many more details than that, because I’m not a teacher, I’m not Haitian, and I want to see what they’ll come up with on their own.

We divided the teachers up into groups based on grade level. Each group has six teachers – two from each school. Three of the teachers in the group actually teach the grade level in their classrooms. The others work with the grade levels beyond third. I told each group that their ultimate goal was to write a curriculum that they could use over the 18 classes this summer: three classes a week, for six weeks. Today, I told them, our goal was just to start talking and thinking about what it means to have access to all these books and how to make use of them given that the circumstances (time and number of children) have changed.

That first day, I spent a lot of time going back and forth between groups. Each had divided up into different rooms, and in every room I had a lot of questions to answer. I spent most of my time talking about the concept of working with a book as a group, because I guessed that was the one they were most familiar with. We talked about how you can divide the class into groups of three or five children, and you can give each student a role. For example, in a group of three, one kid reads, one talks about what they see in the pictures, and the other catches their mistakes.

It took a little bit to make logistics clear throughout the workshop. First, I had to clarify that they’d only have one copy of each book. “We chose variety over quantity,” I explained. That was something that troubled me initially when we were planning out the project, but then I talked to some teachers who told me that they often have only one copy of the book when they’re doing read-alouds in front of students. Why would you need more than that? For the work in groups, you can have the kids rotate books, so each group of five is working with something different. Again, only one copy of each book is necessary. Of course, the computer class will have as many copies of each book as they want, because you can display it on each screen, but I guess that’s a natural consequence of the need to be cost-effective. We simply can’t afford to provide one copy of each book to every kid in the class, and providing two or three copies per class would mean reducing the number of books teachers and students have to choose from.* At one point, when I came back upstairs after consulting with a group, I saw that the first-grade team was deeply immersed in a vigorous debate. Excited to see them engaged with something, I approached them and asked what they were talk about. Apparently, they’d just read a book about fruit, and they were divided on the question of whether a pumpkin is a fruit or a vegetable. I answered that it’s definitely a fruit, because it has seeds. But, I told them, I’d really appreciate it if they spent more time working on the books themselves, instead of that.

They pointed out that it’s a relevant question because the book was about fruit. I clarified that the goal of the summer camp isn’t to learn about fruit, or the Aztecs, or be able to recite what happened to a particular character. All we want is reading and writing. When they do the lesson, they should talk about those first and foremost.

I gave the teachers homework: take one of the books home, and plan out some activities on it.

The next day, all the teachers showed up on time at least (the day before, we started almost an hour late). This time, instead of waiting for them to finish eating, I asked someone to present their book activity while everyone else was digging into their food. Fanie walked us through the book “A Mango for Grandfather.” She didn’t read the book, but she talked about what was happening on each page and gave us the gist of the story: a grandfather takes care of a little girl while she’s growing up, peeling mangoes for her. When he gets too old to take care of her, she takes care of him by peeling the mangoes for him. When he dies, they surround his casket with fruit as a reminder of all the times he has provided for them. I thanked the teacher for being brave enough to go first, and then asked the class for feedback. Everyone agreed that it had been a good presentation of what is in the book. I proposed an activity that could accompany the reading: “You could have them write about someone important in their life, or maybe their grandfather, or maybe someone they knew who died.”

After that, Jonas gave us a presentation on a book called “Insects.” We’d talked a little about the book the day before. He explained that insects can be “useful” or “pesky”, and he said that the related activity to the reading would be to make a list of five useful insects and five pesky insects. One of the teachers pointed out that all insects are technically useful, when you’re looking at the context of the environment, and Raymond added that he was thinking specifically about what would be useful for people. One of the teachers pretended to be a student: “Teacher, my father told me that insects can change. Caterpillars turn into butterflies, and maggots turn into flies.” The other teachers commented that it wasn’t likely a student would be that smart. But they also complimented him on his good Creole skills. It was good to hear about Creole as a skill.

Another teacher walked us through “Marasa pou lavi,” a book about two twin girls who get separated but stay friends. Twins have a special significance here in Haitian culture. When I tell people I have a twin, they laugh and ask whether I know how to curse people, because apparently that’s something that comes easily to twins. Anyway, at the end of the lesson, the main piece of feedback was that she’d taken too long to read the book. It had been fifteen or twenty minutes. Someone recommended stopping midway through and continuing the next day. But, it turned out she’d already stopped midway through. I brought up the point that fifteen or twenty minutes may seem like a long time if you think of it as half of your allotted 45 minutes, but they should start thinking of it as less than a quarter of the two hours they now have to fill. In my opinion, I said, 25 or 30 minutes is an appropriate amount of time to spend reading aloud. As long as you’re animated and ask questions over the course of the story instead of at the very end, the kids will pay attention.

This time, when we divided up into groups, the teachers were more on task, attempting to pick out books that looked promising. I asked them to start distinguishing between the kind of book you would read aloud to a class and the kind of book you would give kids to work with in a group, but for many the idea of kids working on a book all by themselves instead of being led through it was strange. Shouldn’t kids always have a teacher walking through with them? At least with the idea planted in their heads, they started thinking about it and their students’ levels as they flipped through. One of the teachers told me, “You’re looking more for presentations like the one that he gave about insects, with an activity and everything, aren’t you?” At the end of the workshop, I asked the teachers to take three or four books home to work with. Most of them didn’t have that many already picked out, so we did some last-minute distribution. I tried to hand things out as best I could, but a lot of it was random.

There was no workshop on Wednesday – I had planned to go to the airport to pick up my teammates and I figured we all needed a day of reflection. The teachers could use it to look at the books and think about the new opportunities we’d been discussing, and I could use it to plan what to do differently on Thursday and Friday. I don’t want to control too much of what goes on, because I don’t want to cut off any of what they plan to do, but it clearly wasn’t fair to expect them to make a complete shift without some clarification of which path might be good to take.

After introducing Zhane and Aidan on Thursday, we launched into books again. One teacher started a story called Little Chicken – it’s the one about the chicken who lives in a house with other animals and does all the work. They didn’t get very far in the text; only long enough to describe all the animals’ personalities. The dog was sleepy, the cat was vain, and the goose was a joker.

The teacher had to respond to some interesting student comments when she started asking them questions about the reading. The teacher stated that the moral of the story was that working hard is good. After all, someone has to do it. One of the students disagreed. He said that it’s better to just let someone else do the work. He would be like the dog, and take advantage of another person’s willingness to work hard.

We had a few suggestions for activities. The teacher could assign the members of a group working on this book to different roles and ask them to justify their behavior. The chicken might say, “If I don’t do it, who will?” whereas the cat could be like, “If I abandon my beauty routine to get some chores done, I’m depriving the world of my loveliness.”

After that we distributed papers for writing down the lesson plans they were making – it was time to get serious. I went around to the groups, explaining that I expected 36 lesson plans. 18 read-aloud books, and 18 group books. That meant each person in a group would be responsible for three. As samples started coming in, I kept emphasizing the importance of assigning some books as group work. Planning a read-aloud presentation was coming more naturally to them, but I encouraged them to focus on group work books for the moment, because I knew that concept would be harder to grasp. I listed the four elements that should be a part of each lesson: individual reading, a read-aloud book, a writing activity, and group work. I told them each one should last about thirty minutes: maybe take only twenty for the individual reading, so you can spend thirty-five on the read-aloud book. I kept emphasizing that they have much more time than they’re used to, and they need to make the most of it.

On Friday, I asked each group to have a representative present on what progress they’d made yesterday. One of the first grade teachers started out by going through a lesson. I interrupted her at several points to ask for clarifications, and each time the other teachers in her group told me to just wait – it would become clear soon.

The lesson included a writing activity and a read-aloud, but there was no point during the lesson where the kids were really reading a text by themselves. Instead, the teacher had interpreted the concept of group work as students reading in unison, in small groups of three or five. They call this “collaborative reading.” I asked teachers to give me some of the benefits of this activity. One of them told me that although it’s hard to evaluate individual student capacity with this method (because how can you tell who’s reading and who’s just repeating), it’s a good way of making sure all students are engaged (if you’re not opening your mouth, you get called out). I pointed out that now that they have 15 students in a class, monitoring that everyone is paying attention shouldn’t be so much of an issue. A few more teachers injected comments about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the method. I explained that when you have kids working together in a group, you have to give each kid a different role. That way, they’re not copying each other. Each one is thinking for themselves. I talked again about the idea of having one kid explain pictures, one kid read the text, and one kid check the other two. The teacher who’d first proposed the collective reading ended up saying she’d change her lesson plan.

Next, Marie-Carmelle, another first-grade teacher, presented on a nonfiction book about the sun. She explained that while flipping through the book, she’d noticed a lot of words contain the accented e. When teaching the book, she could emphasize the accented e by giving lots of examples with the sound, especially because oftentimes the words with accented e were bold. I asked her whether she realized that the bolded words belonged to a glossary of definitions at the back of the book. It turned out she hadn’t.

I said it was a good lesson plan for first-graders, but maybe not so relevant for the higher grades that already know their sounds. Somebody commented that I’m overestimating the capacity of Haitian children. You can’t expect third-graders in this country to perform as well as the third-graders back at home. I went on a rant about how I’m tired of hearing things like that. I told them that I know Haiti’s poor, I know their schools lack resources, I know kids come to class hungry and don’t receive any help from their illiterate parents at home. I’ve sat in their classes, and I’ve seen what happens. But they’ve got some advantages, too. Creole, with its phonetic writing system, is much easier to learn to read than English. For the most part, each letter only says one thing, all the time. What the kids lack is the opportunity to practice. When you do things like collaborative reading, or you give them only five minutes to write a story, the ones who can do it will do it and the ones who can’t will be able to hide. One teacher pointed out that every week he calls the students up in front of him one by one and asks them to read. “You should be doing that every day,” I pointed out. That’s why we’re asking for so many writing activities, so much group work, and a lot of division of labor. Each kid needs to be thinking for themselves.

The teachers asked for a clarification of objectives, and I said the same thing I’d said the other day: each lesson should have four parts. They asked me to present a model lesson, and I told them we’d do more of that in the coming week. I also said that I’m not a teacher, and I’m not Haitian, so I’m not the best person to do it, but they can watch their peers. Someone said I should just try it, in order to understand that what I’m asking them to do is really hard. The students can’t work at this level. What did I expect to see at the end of the six weeks of classes, anyway?

I said I knew I was being ambitious, and I wasn’t sure what we’d end up seeing. That’s the whole point of doing research. I said that in my opinion if you give a kid the chance to read, write, listen to a story, and work with a group every class, you’ll see improvement. I also pointed out that we’re doing everything we can to make things easier for the teachers by restricting class sizes and giving them more time.

In one of the groups I visited that afternoon, I critiqued a lesson plan because the teacher hadn’t included a writing activity. Instead, he devoted twenty minutes to asking the students verbal questions about what he’d read. I was confused about why it would take that long to ask questions. The teacher explained he wanted to ask all the students individually, one by one. I told him that was a mistake, because while he was doing that all the rest would be sitting there bored. Plus, each one would probably copy the others. I reminded him that the whole point of these classes is to increase reading and writing skills. I said that in the U.S., when the teachers want to evaluate students, they have them write their responses and then they grade them at home later.

I said I knew that doing grading at home was asking for the teachers to do extra work, and it was up to the schools to encourage that (aka, pay the teachers higher salaries). But ultimately, using class-time effectively would lead to much better outcomes.

One of the teachers pointed out that even in the higher grades there are kids who still can’t read. I told him that once we have the results of the pre-test, I’ll share them with him. One of the other teachers, who works with fourth graders in the classroom, commented that a big problem she sees is that the kids aren’t used to producing anything. You ask them to write a sentence, and they freeze up. I said that was natural, given that in the lower grades they aren’t really required to do individual writing – it’s all recitation as a group and responding verbally. The teacher agreed, and said, “I’ll always be a champion for making the kids produce something, because that’s what will actually make a difference in our schools.” The teacher who’d originally said the thing about students being worse at reading than I realized still wasn’t convinced that a little more practice would make a big difference. I promised again to let him know the exam results as soon as we had them.

*We spent $1000 per school on paper books, but we didn’t want to go any higher than that. So, we’re following the library model. One copy of each book; if it’s checked out then you just have to wait (actually, we’ll coordinate schedules among teachers to make sure two teachers at the same school aren’t planning to use the same book for the same week). Comparatively, our digital books are costing us $600.00 per school. Obviously, the laptops, solar panels, and batteries are all additional expenses, but we’re expecting those to last longer than the paper books. Even if the kids treat them really, really well, I’m not sure we can expect longer than a few years what with so many hands. Then again, the batteries will also expire after three to five years, and then you’ve got a $720 investment to replace. And if you’re using Internet to deliver the books, that’s $25 a month. So it’s a little difficult to figure out whether we’re being fair and spending the correct amounts on technology and books. Take the need to provide power out of the equation, and things would be easier, but we don’t want to be reliant on a shaky grid system right now, and someone would still have to pay the bills, so we’re sticking with solar. You can also talk about using e-readers, which would consume much less power than a laptop and don’t need to be charged as often. Your investment goes down from four batteries to two, or maybe even one. But there’s a lot of things you can do with a laptop that you can’t do with an e-reader. Same thing with a cell phone. It’s not like it’s impossible to type a novel on your cell phone, but it’s much less likely to happen. I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with giving out tech that was designed with consumption, rather than creation, in mind. Someday, though, we won’t have stacks of computers sitting in closets to work with, and we’re going to have to start looking at other options. That day is coming sooner than I want it to. These laptops were donated in 2008 and 2009, which means they’re already six or seven years old. They’re durable, but I’m not sure how much longer we can expect them to last. Fortunately, we still have a little longer.

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