Ask and it shall be given?

I told the teachers to work on their lesson plans over the weekend and then on Monday we would talk about topics like presenting a book in front of a class. We started out with the idea of asking “questions that have more than one answer.” I told the teachers that it’s good to ask students about information from the story you just read to them to make sure they’re listening, but it can be even better to ask them a more subjective question that requires some critical thinking, like “What will happen next?” or “What would you do in the same situation?” I explained that since each kid has a different response, they’ll all have to sit there thinking about what to say instead of just deciding whether the first person who raised their hand was right or wrong.

This discussion built off of a few conversations I’d been having with individual teachers about what it means to read a story in front of the class. Some of the teachers selected books that were very short and simple as presentation books. At first, I tried to tell them, “Look, the schedule says you will spend 20 minutes reading this book. How can you spend 20 minutes on a book that is only 8 pages?” But, they always assured me that they’d be able to do it. They pointed out that first of all, after you finish reading you’ve got to ask every kid a question in order to make sure they understand. When they get the questions wrong, that means you should read the book a second time straight through, to give them another chance to listen and grasp it. For some of the longer books, teachers were saying they wouldn’t have time to get through it in 20 or 30 minutes, so they’d stop midway through and pick it up the next class.

This was one place where I put my foot down. They should be reading one book, straight through, out loud to the class, for a good 20 or 30 minutes every day. No selecting kids to read paragraph by paragraph (it’s no fun to sit and listen to one of your fellow classmates struggle through a passage). No picking a short book and reading it two times through. As far as asking questions to confirm comprehension goes, that’s why we had the conversation about subjective questions – I figure at least those will be more engaging for students. I told the teachers that the objective of reading a book out loud to the kids is to increase their oral listening skills (you pick a book that is more difficult than what they would typically be able to access on their own) and to get them excited about reading by demonstrating how fun it can be. If the kids are paying attention, they’ll probably be able to tell you at the end of the story which character was which. But, if they can’t, then it’s just a capacity that they need to continue developing. It’s not like this is a science class or a history class where there’s a specific set of facts and theories we need to stuff between your ears. Our objective is reading and writing. If they don’t get the story the first time, it’s not a big deal to move on to something else and see how they do on the next story the next class. I’m not sure how helpful reading a second time will be, after all, because in my mind you get bored the second time and even though you pick up on some details you with you spend most of the second reading just sitting there waiting for it to be over.

Anyway, I guess for me it was just interesting that the concept of presenting turned out to be the most confusing one. I thought personally that the group work would cause a lot of problems, because that’s not done normally in Haitian schools. But it turns out it’s easier to start something completely new instead of changing something slightly that’s already in place. I tried emphasizing to teachers that kids do what you expect them to do. If you tell them to sit and listen to something for 20 or 30 minutes straight through, they can. I pointed out that they do it all the time, for two hours at a time, when they’re watching a movie. Of course, some people might say a book isn’t as exciting as a movie. But if there’s one thing these teachers definitely have down pat, it’s the ability to keep all eyes in the class on them. Maybe that’s a skill that the students have, too, come to think of it. Both groups work together to maintain the collective attentions span, because there would be fifty conversations going on at the same time and learning would really be impossible.

My mistake is, sometimes when I’m telling teachers that they should demand a lot from their students, I phrase it as, “Well, in my country, the kids are able to do it, and so I think the Haitian kids aren’t any different.” At one point, a teacher raised their hand and told me that one of these days I should demonstrate the whole two hour lesson for them instead of doing a normal training session. I pointed out that wouldn’t be the best use of time, and that they’re better at teaching than I am anyway.

He said the point of making me go through that would be to show me that some of what I’m asking for isn’t possible. You can’t expect Haitian third-graders to arrive at the same level as American third-graders. They’ve got so much in their way, so many disadvantages.

Cue long rant from me, with no pauses to translate for my friends (normally, I stop every few sentences to let Aidan and Zhane know what’s going on and ask for their input. Or at least, I try to). First of all, I decide to approach the question linguistically. Sometimes, I talk about technology or about languages, the two subjects I’m recognized as the local expert in, instead of attacking them head-on and saying, “Wait, are you really telling me that you don’t believe the kids are smart enough?” Maybe being frank would be the better approach, but sometimes I try not to step over the boundaries of my role. I try to give myself a specific job to do, because that will give me the chance to do it well.

Anyway, I told the teacher that Haitian Creole, as a written language, resembles Spanish a lot. Both systems are more or less phonetic – each sound corresponds to one letter, and vice versa. Their syllables end in vowels, instead of consonants (Haitian Creole does have a lot more consonant-ending syllables than Spanish, but you can still argue that it’s easier to break words into syllables in Haitian Creole than it would be in English). When you’ve got a system like that, it doesn’t take kids much time before they’re able to read any word you put in front of them. Whereas back home, we’re having spelling bees up through the eighth grade. I told the teachers that what their kids are missing is practice, not intelligence. Sure, it would be nicer if the school-day could be longer, if the kids could show up with full bellies, if the parents knew how to read themselves. A lot of things could be changed for the better. But if they use what they have efficiently, they can get pretty far on that alone.

I don’t think he was really satisfied with my answer, so I wrapped up with, “You know, this is a research study.” I don’t know what exactly I can expect from the kids, or the teachers. Maybe I really am being too ambitious and asking for too much. But that silly saying about shooting for the moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars might be applicable here. Either that, or we’re in deep space and we’re suffocating. I guess we’ll see.

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