Pyramids, Mudcakes, and Other Scams

“I’m headed off to a meeting,” Bernadette tells me. “It’s a new program where you sell things, and you can also make money by enrolling other merchants.”

Warning bells start going off in my head. “I’d like to hear more about it later,” I tell her.

We sat down tonight and talked about it. Yep, it’s definitely a pyramid scheme. And, apparently she’s already signed up for something like this before. They gave her expensive foreign coffee to sell, and it totally didn’t work: the only way to make money was to recruit other sellers, because customers for these products were nonexistent. She ended up losing $250 USD.

Given that past experience, Bernadette was willing to listen to me. But, one of her best friends is eager to get in on this thing. I wanted to explain to her why this is a bad idea so she can convince her friend and everyone else not to do it.

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My “explaining” notebook

I pulled up the French Wikipedia article on my phone. First, I made the mistake of trying to walk through the math: “Now, let’s say each of you has to sign up 3 other people in order to make a profit. What’s 3 to the power of 10? 59,049. That’s bigger than the population of this whole town. 88% of you are going to be at the bottom level of this. You’re going to lose all your money.”

Then we got to the legislation section. We read about laws in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. “If these people tried this in Canada, and they got caught, they’d go to jail. It’s not legal.” Haitians are always comparing what they have here to what other people have abroad. This is just one more example of Haitians getting screwed for Bernadette to add to a whole bunch of others that she already has in her head. She started nodding.

This is also an example of my foreigner powers at work. Unlike the vast majority of Haitians, I’m equipped to tackle this problem. I’ve heard the term “pyramid scheme” before. I know how to Google (and read). I have a smartphone with Internet. I’ve spent my entire education being told that if I just read something enough times and take notes, I’ll understand it, so I’m willing to sit down and take the time to read the French article and try to make sense of it. I have spare time, and, also important, spare head-space, since my other obligations aren’t stressful (I’m stressed as heck trying to make this project work, but no one’s depending on me for sustenance).

I have mixed feelings about my foreigner powers. On one hand, their existence justifies my presence here: it’s great to be able to “save” Bernadette from making a bad investment just by knowing the right search term to type in. On the other hand, what if instead of giving me a grant we paid the salaries of Haitian lawyers and regulators so that they can nip these things in the bud? It’s a short-term, long-term game.

Right now, in the medium term, I take comfort in the fact that Bernadette’s a community leader: if I supply her with the arguments, she can influence other people to avoid this in the future. In the longer medium term, if we install an Internet-in-a-Box server at a school, all the students there will have access to the Wikipedia article, and maybe even a translated Khan Academy video on the subject, without having to pay for an Internet connection or a smartphone. In the long-ish term, if we teach kids to read and write in their own language, maybe they’ll start writing their own articles and chat messages. People who got scammed by a program can post about it, and maybe other people won’t fall for the same thing.

I mean, that’s what I tell myself when I wake up in the morning.

Meanwhile, I’m just sad that someone, somewhere, decided to exploit Haitian hope and lack of access to information. Also, I’m mad that they got away with it.

I’m also thinking about information on my end. I tried Googling “pyramid scheme Haiti” to talk about the problem with Bernadette in a local context. Surprise, surprise, an article called the “The 10 Nastiest Ponzi Schemes” popped up. It’s got this little gem about why you shouldn’t scam Haitians: “People there eat mud cakes when times get bad.”

But actually, the mud cake thing is a lie.(1) Not a super dangerous lie like telling someone that if they pay money they’ll get rich quick. But it’s still a pretty dangerous lie, because it changes how Americans see Haitians, which affects how we decide to “help” them.

If we keep portraying Haitians as these miserable and uneducated caricatures, clearly the solution is always going to involve someone like me swooping in as the savior with their smartphone.

But you know, somebody must have fallen for pyramid schemes once upon a time in the good ol’ US of A. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a law against them in the first place. Plus, I don’t want to live in a world where you have to Google every little thing and protect yourself.

I was about to write “I want to live in a world where I can rely on the government to protect me.” Still think this would be pretty good, but even better: a world where no one’s scamming anyone in the first place.

I know that’s not going to happen, but I’m thinking we can get a little closer to it if there’s more communication on all sides. There are three sides, by the way: Us understanding Haitians, Haitians understanding each other, and Haitians understanding us.

So:

I’m posting my first ever Haitian Creole status on Facebook, letting all my Haitian friends know to check out that Wikipedia article and message me before they get involved in something like this. After all, Bernadette’s the third person I know personally who’s been affected by this. It’s very likely that someone else I know is at risk, too.

I’m going to email this blog to some foreigners I know who are visiting Lascahobas next week, so that they can continue the conversation and back Bernadette up if people don’t believe her.

Bernadette already took notes in her own notebook, but I’m also going to write up and print off a brief explanation of why these things are bad, so that she’ll have the script for passing this on to other folks.

Oh, and I wrote this blog post!

Clearly, lots of world-saving going on here.

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(1)I have personal experience with these mudcakes. My first summer in Haiti, a bunch of kids gave me one and told me to eat it. “Haha, not falling for that trick, guys.” Then one of the girls popped it in her mouth. I still didn’t believe them (they could have dared her to) so I made another do it. Okay, then I tried it, too. Surprise. It tasted like dirt. The girls giggled and told me that pregnant women are supposed to eat them. That was the joke: since I ate it, I must be pregnant! Who was the father?

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.

Parents’ Meeting

Last week, we had our last parents’ meeting. At every school where we’re working, I asked the directors to organize a meeting with the parents so I could present the project, hand out consent forms, and take questions. In the last two meetings, the questions had been pretty basic. I tried to make it clear to everyone that just because you turn in the form doesn’t mean your child will be selected. If you have two children in the same school or the same grade, one might be selected and the other might not be. Not everyone is going to be using a laptop – half of the kids will be using paper books. Once those things were cleared up, people tended to be satisfied.

Not so with this meeting, at the Catholic school. There were a lot of questions about the project itself. Most of them came from men. The first guy wanted to know what the long-term plan was. I explained that everything depends on what results we get. Someone else wanted to know more details about me and my organization. I wrote my contact information on the board, and I talked for a bit about how we’re very aware that many foreign NGOs come in, make a donation, leave, and never come back. After all, we’re working with laptops that were basically abandoned by One Laptop Per Child. I explained that our goal is to enable schools to take advantage of these resources. We’ll provide power, connectivity, and training, and we’ll work to integrate the laptops into classrooms instead of sponsoring an after-school activity.

I explained that the school itself had to take ownership in order for this to become sustainable. We’ll provide them with the things they need, but in the end it’s up to them to decide to use them. We’re not going to pay people for years on end to use these laptops. The summer program is funded, but after that if the laptops become a normal part of the school day then the teachers will receive the same amount of money for using them that they’d normally receive for teaching. Our organization can’t provide scholarships, salaries, or stipends. The school has to decide that laptops are worth it. In terms of expanding, if we get good results, we can reach out to public and private networks for the support to get larger. The next step, after this summer, is to adapt the program for the school-day situation and schedule. That will happen in December. After that, it’s really up to the schools. This is a year-long effort, and then we’ll see. No one can predict the future.
One mother asked whether we would take photos of the kids and share them with our government, because I’d mentioned that the U.S. government is providing part of our funding. I didn’t understand her concern at first. It turned out she was worried that if the government knew the kids were getting help in our program, they wouldn’t allow them to participate in other programs. I reiterated that all the information would be private.

Then, another man had a complaint about the fact that we were only choosing 30 students per grade. There’s 50+ students per grade. He saw it as unjust. I explained that we’d like to take everybody, but we don’t have the resources, both in terms of teachers and money to pay the teachers. Everyone will get the chance to use the laptops and follow our adapted curriculum in January. For three months (September, October, November) some kids will be behind the others in the class because they didn’t participate in the summer activity. We’ll instruct the teachers to pay special attention to them, and they’ll probably benefit from being surrounded by other students who worked over the summer. I said we didn’t want to make the teachers work with more than 15 students at once, because this is partially a training activity, and we want them to have conditions where they’ll be successful.

The guy wasn’t satisfied with that answer. He said that’s not how you do things here in Haiti. Someone suggested that we get one of the sisters to come up and talk about whether or not they approved of this program. Sister Micheline said that she’d talked to me last summer and again in December about the possibility of starting to use the laptops again, and they sent one of their teachers to our workshop in December. She said that if some of the parents didn’t want to participate because they had doubts, they weren’t going to force anyone.

After that, we handed out the forms and left. Aidan and Zhane both had a lot of questions for me about what had gone on – I hadn’t been translating, because I’d been too busy responding. I told them it’s a good thing parents asked so many probing questions. I’d rather have that than blind acceptance of what I’m doing, and their concerns were completely legitimate. It’s hard to be doing something that’s framed as research. At the end of the day, you’re not helping everyone, or at least you’re not helping everyone equally. The idea is that in the long term the information you find out will be helpful to everybody. But how do you explain that to the kids and their parents?

First Laptop Workshop

Originally, we’d been planning to start laptop stuff Monday, or even the week after that, but I decided to have a preliminary thing on Saturday in order to give them more time to get used to the computers. That affected turn-out: only six of the nine teachers showed up, and we started an hour late. I’d decided ahead of time not to feed everyone, so we just got drinks.

After discussing the advantages and the disadvantages of the laptops, we pulled up the WriteBooks, an activity that Gonzalo Odiard developed for our team. I walked the teachers through how to add a background image, add an image, and write text. Some had prior experience with the laptops and went very quickly. Others needed a little bit of help – one woman in particular was struggling, because she was too hesitant to click on things after hovering her mouse over them. I let the teacher sitting next to her, who was quick with the laptops, help her out. I also took the time to explain concepts like clicking and dragging to the group as a whole, offering plenty of examples: “If you want to move this pen over here, you put your hand over it, you grab it, and you don’t let go until you get to the spot you want to move it to. Then, you let go of it.”

After everyone had the example on their screen, I asked them to add a second blank page and start working on it. Some were able to do it, and others needed to be coached through the steps again. One teacher searched for “dog” and a chimpanzee came up along with some dog pictures, because the word for dog is “chen” and the word for chimp is “chenpanze.” She asked if there was a way to look up “chenpanze” so the kids can learn what it is. I showed her the HaitiDictionary activity, a Creole-Creole dictionary stored on the computers. Another teacher wanted to orient a car so that it looked like it was coming straight at you as it entered a garage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any car images that were facing in that direction. I also used the time to coach teachers on using the mouse, typing upper-case letters, and adding accents.

After everyone was done, I asked a teacher to walk us through the steps again – partly to remind everyone how to do it, and partly to see how good he was at explaining what to do. At one point, he used the word “cursor”, and I said it wasn’t a word he could expect the kids to recognize. Everyone should use “mouse” or “arrow” when talking about the mouse. Otherwise, his explanation was well-paced and clear, which I was happy about.
Our hour was almost up at that point (originally, we’d scheduled everything for two hours, but everyone had shown up an hour late, and I didn’t want to keep them long because it was a Saturday). I told the teachers to play around with the activity more. I helped some of them out with using the arrow keys to navigate through the text they’d already written. Then, I suggested we all walk down to the house to grab some chargers so they could take the laptops home and practice by themselves. They said I should go down myself and come back up – they’d wait for me. When I got back, they were still working on the computers, which I was happy to see.

I told them their homework was to write a story of three to five pages, and come up with five recommendations about how to make the app better. They asked some questions of what I meant by a story. Did they have to write it on the computers, or just tell it to me from their head? Did it have to be a story they made up, or could they copy some from a book? What kind of stuff should go on each page?

After that, they asked me to sing a song I’d written – I’d made the mistake of mentioning that I write songs but I’m a terrible singer. “You always ask us to do stuff we’re not comfortable with,” they said. “You should have to do the same thing.”

As we were leaving, I glanced at my phone, and realized a whole hour had passed – the teachers had willingly stayed for the extra hour, even though it was Saturday. I felt like that was a confirmation that for once I’d done something right. Maybe it was the computers, or the smaller number of people, or the fact that the directions were clearer, or maybe everyone, including me, is just more relaxed on Saturdays. But it was nice.

AFAL’s Story

The other night, I translated Bernadette’s explanation of how her organization came to be founded, which was also my opportunity to finally get the whole story. Today, I stopped by my first meeting of the organization. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In 1989, Bernadette worked with a nutrition center, where a lot of mothers would bring their kids. Sometimes, the mothers weren’t able to come themselves, so they sent the older siblings to accompany the young ones. She started asking why those kids weren’t in school, and the mothers explained that they weren’t able to pay the fees. Bernadette told the parents that if they bought the uniforms and made sure to send them, she would find a way to sign them up.

They started out with 12 students. Bernadette found a sympathetic priest who was willing to accept them at his school, but then, at the end of the school-year, she wasn’t able to meet the conditions. The priest wanted her to pay full-price, so Bernadette had to start looking at other options.

The land where the school is now used to be a church. She talked to the priest there, and he was willing for them to start having classes there. That was in 1990, but the school didn’t get its official papers until 2 years later, in 1992, so that’s the official founding date. They started with first grade, and added classes year by year. For a while, they stayed at six, and then two years ago they added seventh grade and eighth grade (to comply with government regulations, you’ve got to go up to nine now). There are over 600 students attending the school, and they finished construction in 2014 (although paying off the construction loans is of course another story).

Bernadette offered us a glimpse into her school’s finances. Teacher salaries for grades 1-6 range from $80 USD to $125 USD every month. The teachers for the higher grades are paid by hour, because they’re only teaching a specific subject. Only three of Bernadette’s teachers are “normalized” – that means they’ve spent three years studying education at a “normal school.” If you’re normalized, you’re in higher demand, and you can expect a salary of around $400 USD every month. She’s not able to attract normalized teachers, because they often go work at other schools in the area that get paid better.

AFAL itself was founded in 1996, a few years after the school opened. It stands for Association of Activist Women in Lascahobas. They focused on education and agriculture, providing schooling, seeds, and tools. Bernadette received support from all over: Worldvision, Oxfam, and others. In 1999(?), they joined up with the Church of the Redeemer, a Catholic church in my state, Virginia. A lot of the Catholic churches in Virginia have a twinning program where they partner with a Catholic church in Haiti. The Church of the Redeemer decided to help out Bernadette’s group, even though they’re not affiliated with the church (Bernadette goes there on Sundays, but she’s just a member). They’ve supported the school, a housing project, a small vocational school where they made cleaning supplies, a water treatment project, and other things.

Bernadette told us that she served as AFAL’s first president, and after that others stepped up. But then, around 2003 and 2005, AFAL almost collapsed, and she felt obligated to take the reins again. Since then, she’s served as president, and AFAL has grown to over 150 members.

At the meeting today, there were only 20 women or so. Bernadette explained that not everyone attends the monthly meetings all at once, and there are others who choose to meet in smaller groups closer to their homes at other times. The meeting was supposed to start at 3, but Bernadette told us not to show up until 4.

After we introduced ourselves, Bernadette launched into the lesson. She opened a book about democracy to a page that talked about what being a citizen means. First, she asked the group what being a citizen means.

“You can vote,” said one woman. “But you have to respect the laws,” said another.

Bernadette asked them at what age people become citizens, and they talked for a bit about how you’re considered an adult at 18 (you “become a major.”). Bernadette also talked about the difference between civil rights and political rights. A civil right is something you’re born with, and everybody has one. You have the right to an identity (when your child is born, they should get a birth certificate with their name on it, along with their “siyati” – their last name. Now I know why all the parents were confused when we put “siyati” on the consent forms. It also translates to “signature”, so they idn’t know which one I was asking for). You have the right to claim a nationality – if you’re born in Haiti, you can be Haitian. You have the right to marry, once you’ve become an adult. You have the right to free speech. Everyone has the right to health and education, too.

Political rights involve participation in the system. Voting is the obvious one. Also, you can join a political party and run as a candidate. Plus, you can criticize the government. Bernadette explained that “criticize” doesn’t mean you should just talk about all the things the government is doing wrong. You should also talk about when it does something good. If it does something wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. It just means that it will avoid doing that again in the future.

Bernadette asked if anyone had questions, and no one did. So, she announced, she would ask questions of her own. First, she asked what a citizen was. After they correctly identified someone who has turned 18, she asked what the distinction was between a member of the population and a citizen. The women understood that a child can be a member of the population, but isn’t considered a citizen until they stop being a minor. There was also a discussion about how someone can lose their rights as a citizen. Bernadette clarified that if you’re convicted of a crime and sent to prison, you can lose your citizenship.

Bernadette asked them to talk about civil rights, but no one was able to correctly explain what they were, so she went over them again briefly. One woman smiled and said “Good health for you, and for me” like it was a joke she couldn’t believe in. Then, they moved on to political rights. This time, there were many more questions after people delivered “voting” as one correct response. One woman wanted to know whether someone who had stolen or committed a crime could run for president. Bernadette repeated what she’d said about losing your citizenship if you went to prison. “One thing you should know is that we’re all equal under the law,” Bernadette declared. “Everyone plays by the same rules.”

The woman in the back wasn’t buying it. “How can we all be equal when a president has more power than I do?” she asked. She also seemed to be implying that she’d never be able to run for president – it was an opportunity that wasn’t open to her.

Bernadette answered that when she was talking about equality she was talking about the legal system and the justice system. As for the political system, apparently there’s a law that you don’t have to be able to read to vote or run for office. In Bernadette’s mind, that was going to open up the system to a lot of previously-marginalized people.

Someone else asked about the age when you can run for candidate. Bernadette said it’s 25 for some local positions, 50 for deputy or senator (those are the representatives that get sent to Parliament), and even higher for a president. Someone commented that instead of saying people have citizenship at 18, they should say 25, because you aren’t able to run for a candidate until you’re 25. Bernadette pointed out that you can do a lot of things at 18, but they aren’t allowed to run until later because most people don’t graduate from college until they’re around that age.
There was still some confusion about what age you can be president. Bernadette said she wasn’t sure of the exact number. There’d been a decree, but she hadn’t read it yet. Someone brought up the case of Baby Doc, who was the son of Papa Doc, a dictator. Baby Doc definitely hadn’t been over fifty when he came to power. Someone pointed out that in that case, it was a matter of succession. If you die, then your first son will inherit everything you own. It took a little more hashing out before they also recognized that the case was unusual not only because the guy was young, but because he was a dictator, not an elected political leader.

After that there was yet another discussion about whether people who commit crimes can still be candidates. One woman asked, “Are you sure that if someone commits a crime, they’ll lose their citizenship, and they won’t be able to be a candidate?” Bernadette told her that’s a question to ask the justice system and the legal system. She also told them it’s a question they need to ask themselves, and she went on a long rant about the idea of community justice.

Basically, in the past, people used to look out for each other. Bernadette seemed to be blaming kids and teenagers for most crimes. “In countries all around the world, not just Haiti, kids go around stealing things,” she said. Before, if someone caught you stealing, they would tell your parents about you, and the gossip would spread all around the town. The parents would discipline the child, and in extreme cases, they would send them away. But now, parents are eager to “tear up leaves and cover up” their children’s crimes. Even if their child does something wrong right in front of them, they’re not going to want to admit it or accept it. They’ll try to hide it from the community. Bernadette related a story about a boy who had stolen a phone not too long ago who got beaten for it. It was unclear how she felt about the community taking matters into their own hands and beating him, but it was very clear that in her opinion things might have been different if the parents had been strong enough to control the boy. Maybe she was implying he wouldn’t have committed the crime if he’d been raised differently, or maybe she meant that the community wouldn’t have had to beat him if the parents had taken care of it themselves.

After that, Bernadette decided to continue. She told them she wanted to talk about “some general things that a good senator or deputy would do.” She proceeded to give a list of priorities and projects, all of which were things she herself has worked on in the past. First, micro-finance and collectives are important, especially when there’s an emphasis on women’s rights, since they’re the ones who “hold the largest loads on their backs.” Infrastructure’s also important to consider. When people talk about the environment, most of the time the first thing that comes to mind is trash or deforestation, but it’s important to remember that the environment is everything around you. Environment is also a question of infrastructure. There’s lots of good food available up in the mountains, but it’s being wasted because the women can’t carry it all down the path on their heads. A better road would help. Next, a safe place for children is important. After the earthquake, lots of children ended up on the streets. That’s not good. They should be taken care of. Houses for adults are also important. You might be able to live outside when it’s sunny, but what will you do when it rains? (Haitians really hate rain). Bernadette announced that even if her funding source for the housing project runs out, she’ll go looking for money in other sources. However, she announced, the funding source had just told her they were willing to keep going, which was very good news. Bernadette went on to briefly mention agriculture. She said that seeds and tools were important. Then she touched on health. One of the best hospitals in the country is only half an hour away, in Mirebelais. But there are people who sleep outside just to guarantee their spot, because it’s so overcrowded. You can wait up to eight days just to see a doctor. It would be better if each area had its own clinic, so the Mirebelais hospital only had to see the most severe cases, or the ones that required a specialist. Finally, education is important. It’s such a big question that all the politicians are going to have to work together to tackle it (were the other questions not so big?). School should be free and available up to university, and it should be focused on the idea that when people graduate they should be able to find a job. She said she wanted to talk more about the idea of employment, but she didn’t have much time. She moved on to electronic voting, which would make it easier for more people to participate. Then, she passed it over to another woman, who was going to talk about immigration.

The Dominican Republic denies citizenship to children who are born on its soil to Haitian parents. They’re sending 130,000 “Haitians” back to Haiti very soon. Everyone was shocked at the number. Apparently, for many of these deportees it’s actually their first time in Haiti. They’re like refugees. In Haiti even more than other places, survival is based off who you know. When you need something, you rely on your family or community. These people may not know anybody. The woman warned people to take precautions. Who knows what diseases these people could be carrying? Some might have AIDS or syphilis. If they can’t find work, food, or a house, they’re going to turn to stealing. She urged everyone to get locks for their doors. There would be all sorts of people coming: criminals, homosexuals. They would drive the price of food even higher, by stealing or buying food that Haitians needed to eat. The gist was, “Batten down the hatches. A crisis is coming.” It would be 45 days or less before they arrived.

They asked me what I thought of the woman’s message. Maybe they could tell it didn’t sit well with me. I said I’m not Haitian so I really shouldn’t say anything. But it irked me to hear them talking about these people like they were trash that the Dominican was throwing out. “Everybody is somebody,” I said, using a Haitian proverb to make my point. “These people share the same language and culture with you.” “No, they don’t,” Bernadette interrupted. “Most of them don’t speak the same language.” Some of the people being sent here have lived in the Dominican for three or four generations. I floundered: “Well, they were Haitian long ago. You still have a common enemy. It’s not like these people are choosing to come here. The Dominican is sending them. Be mad at the Dominican, instead of at these people. This is a crisis for them too.”

Bernadette cut me off and went into a rant. She talked about how after the earthquake they all had to take people in and feed them. People have already showed up at her door from the Dominican, asking for help. Almost everyone in the room knows someone who’s currently in the Dominican, whether it’s friends or family. “These people are going to be descending on you, and you’re going to have to open your doors to them,” Bernadette said. That still doesn’t solve the problem of people coming who have no connections, but at least it was something.

After that everyone left the meeting in a hurry, because a storm was coming. Normally, rain here is just a downpour of warmish waves of water. We debated whether we’d walk to go visit some people, and then things got worse and our decision was made for us. The wind was blowing really hard. It drove rain in through the windows of the house. Standing on the porch, we saw hail bouncing off the pebbles in the front yard. I picked up a stone, and brought it in to show Martha, marveling that there was something cold naturally occurring in Haiti. Puddles collected on the floor of our room because it wasn’t possible to completely close the windows. We moved papers and electronics to safe corners. The roof leaked less than I’d expected – it turned out they’d plugged up a lot of the holes, so we no longer had a small pond collecting under the columns in the living room. After the storm passed, everyone went up on the roof to shovel off the wet sand and sweep the water towards the drains. It’s not sloped, so you have to put in a bit of extra effort.

“Maybe Haitians have a good reason to hate rain,” Aidan commented. “That looked like a hurricane.”

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.

Buried Treasure: Last Class Observation

The first time I went to Yolande’s 5th grade classroom at the Catholic school, something strange happened. The sister introduced me and said I was there to observe her lesson, and she commented, “But I’m supposed to be done at noon.” Time has been a constant point of confusion for me. The way I originally understood it, school starts at 8 and goes until 1. But, it’s actually 8:30, and no real teaching happens until 9, at least in some classrooms. Then, at 10:30, they have recess and lunch, which is supposed to take 30 minutes but often takes 45 (they leave earlier than 10:30 and come back later than 11). And they leave at 12 or 12:30, instead of 1. The schedule might be shifting because of exams, of course. But even if they’re doing the full 8 until 1 with only a 30 minute break, that’s still only four and a half hours in a classroom. Here in the U.S., we manage 6 or more. Of course, more time sitting in a seat doesn’t guarantee more skills when you walk out, and in other countries they spend less time in school but still get good results.

Anyway, I told Yolande that I would just come by another time once I realized she hadn’t planned a lesson for the last hour of a typical school day. The second time I came, she had me sit down in the back of the room, in front of a table. The table had a chair behind it, but she got me a chair so I could sit in front of the people.

The class had 30 students, and only six of them were boys. They were doing a “Creole Communication” lesson. The teacher started out by writing the objective on the board.

Then, she had the kids open to a page in their reader. She asked them to tell her what they saw in the picture. Kids started shouting out answers, and she told them to raise their hand.

A man was sitting in a bed in the picture. The teacher asked “Is he sleeping?” The man wasn’t. The class concluded that meant he was sick.
After that introduction, the class was supposed to read the text silently, in their head. She told them to pay attention, because she was going to ask questions afterward.

Here’s the story. Just before he dies, a father tells his sons not to sell the land. Apparently, there’s a treasure buried underneath, and the more they plant the better chance they’ll have of finding it (I don’t see why they have to plant instead of just digging, but okay). The sons never find the treasure, but they make a lot of money because their garden is really profitable.

After a few minutes, the teacher asked, “Who can explain to me what they just read?” One girl stood up and started, but her explanation was too long. The teacher told her “You should summarize. You should understand and explain.” One boy stood up and answered, and his answer was more acceptable. The teacher asked, “Did anyone remember something else?” to prompt the students to add something, but no one had anything to add.

The teacher moved on and told the students that the moral of the story had to do with the importance of knowing how to work the land. “Working the land leads to treasure.” Once again, I found myself wondering what the motivation was for teaching kids this in school. Isn’t the whole point of getting an education so that you can have a better life than your parents? I get that the principle of working hard doesn’t apply only to farming, but that’s not how the teacher presented it in class, and I’m not sure how it was intended to come across anyway.

She chose a student who started to read the passage to them, and then another wrapped it up. Finally, everyone read together, chanting in rhythm.
Then, they got out notebooks and answered questions. The kids had the questions in their textbooks, but the teacher copied out each question on the board anyway. The questions related to basic comprehension of the story.

A few of the kids started writing responses immediately, but most didn’t. Some were looking at the text to find the answer. Others didn’t even seem to be trying. The teacher told them to start searching. She also told the class not to write the objective that she’d put on the board above the actual lesson itself. She told them that she’d written a longer objective this time just for my benefit, and they didn’t need it.

The teacher let the kids continue writing and stepped out of the classroom to talk to some other teachers. Then she came back in. “Are we all done?” The majority of the kids said yes, but some said no loudly. She moved on anyway. “Who wants to answer the questions?”

A girl went up front to write on the board. She wrote something wrong, so the teacher said, “Someone who didn’t write that, come up and let’s correct it together.” The class recited the correct answer, while the boy wrote on the board.

The teacher started walking around to look at individual notebooks. Not all the kids had the answers written down, and she told them to start copying what was on the board so they’d be able to look at them at home.

The teacher decided to have the kids read the story one last time, and they did the same rhythmic recitation that I’ve grown accustomed to hearing. I swear, it sounds exactly like the robotic voice that the computers have installed for reading text.

After that, the teacher said she had a homework assignment for the kids. She asked them, “Do we know a person who has died?” Some of the kids said no at first, but she added on that it could be anyone – a relative, a friend, or just someone who lives in their neighborhood. The teacher told them to write about that person. The kids asked, “In Creole?”

I think the writing prompt may have come from yesterday’s workshop. We read a story about a girl giving a mango to her grandfather once he got old and sick, because he always gave them to her when she was young and now he needed someone to take care of him just like he took care of her. I told the teachers that a good writing prompt based on the story is “Write about someone in your life who was important to you.” It looks like the teacher took that and put her own spin on it. I would never think to ask kids to talk about someone who had died, but apparently in her mind it didn’t seem to be too much of an issue.

The teacher wrote the directions on the board. The directions read “Write a story about someone who know at hour house.” I don’t know whether she left out the dead part intentionally or not. She misspelled the word “tèks”, writing “tèsk” instead. At the end of the lesson, she asked everyone whether they were satisfied, and they said yes.

Next, I went to Bernadette’s school and sat in on Jonas’s third grade class. There were a total of 60 students: 33 girls and 27 boys. He had written numbers in different colors on the board:

3 x 10 =
3 x 100 =
3 x 1000 =

Each zero was written in yellow instead of white. Jonas asked a student to read the equations for him. Some of the students were distracted, so he had them clap.
Then, he started asking questions. The kids in the back raised their hands more. The gist of the lesson was, “What happens when you multiply a number by 10?” Some of the students started to realize that it means you add on a zero. Jonas walked them through the other examples, patiently asking, “Who can tell me what result this will give?”

After a few more tries and examples, the students started getting the hang of it, correctly identifying 600 as the result of 6 and 100. Then Jonas started calling on individual students. Whenever he gave one a problem, they would have to talk fast before the others managed to shout out the answer. Some of the kids started standing up in order to better compete for first to respond.

One girl raised her hand. “Teacher, I don’t understand.” The teacher asked, “Why can’t you understand?” and some of the kids started injecting comments. I wanted to hold up my two hands in front of the girl and tell her, “A long time ago, some people decided that once you get to ten you’re supposed to start over again, maybe because we have ten fingers.”

The teacher started walking through more examples. He had kids come up, urging them to jot down the answer quickly so the others could take their turn – everybody kept moving. He paid special attention to the girl who didn’t understand, calling on her several times. When she came up to consider something on the board, he put his hand on her shoulder.

Then, they did one last run-through with the whole class at once. The kids slipped up for a moment on 10 x 1000, saying 1000 at first. None of the other examples had more than three zeroes. Then, someone correctly realized that it was 10,000.

After erasing the objective from the board, indicating the start of a new lesson, the teacher still kept calling on random kids to give him answers. The kids asked whether they should take out notebooks to do some practice problems, and at first he said they didn’t need the notebooks. Then he asked whether they wanted to use them, and they said yes, so he had them get them out. Some of the kids came up front to grab them out of a backpack on the table instead of their bags at their seats.

Jonas wrote out some more practice problems, and then decided. “Let’s do this on the board so we can do it faster.” One of the kids who came up wrote down something wrong. The class responded “Woy” (Uh-oh) and someone said “That’s not it, teacher.”

After that last lightning round, the class was more subdued, and Jonas was ready to switch to the next topic. He apologized to me for saying some things in French, but I told him I’d been able to understand it, and it seemed like the kids were able to understand too.