Category Archives: Annual Summaries

General Update Fall 2008

Another year has passed since I moved to Haiti at the beginning of 2005. Things look a lot different as I write of this year’s activities than they’ve looked at other times since I began writing these summaries. On one hand, the series of four hurricanes that ravaged Haiti in August and September have dramatically damaged a situation that was already extremely difficult. Haiti’s been the poorest country in the western hemisphere for a long time, and that poverty was already making life hard. But the impact on Haiti of the world economic situation, which has seen food and energy prices dramatically increasing everywhere, has been enormous.

On the other hand, my own situation has been different for these last months. But it is time again to say where things stand. As some of you know, I am back in Chicago right now. I returned to Shimer in August to spend a semester teaching at the institution that I still consider my home base. (See: www.shimer.edu.) I am teaching a full schedule of Shimer’s core courses, ranging from the main philosophy/theology class to ones in mathematical logic and basic chemistry. Teaching Shimer students and participating in the life of the institution as a member of its faculty continue to feel like important parts of my life that I shouldn’t give up.

At the same time, the work of the Haiti Project continues even while I’m in Chicago, both here at Shimer and back in Haiti. By the end of the semester, Shimer will have hosted three very different Haitian colleagues. Each is bringing a lot to share with the community at Shimer, and each is working on particular things he came to learn. In Haiti, our partners continue to move forward, and we’ve been helping them as much as the distance allows.

And I’ve purchased a ticket to return to Haiti in December. I plan to be there at least for all of 2009. So the work will continue as we move into the coming year.

As always, I am dividing the report by partner. I hope that reading it is useful. Please e-mail me with any questions at sjwerlin@shimer.edu.

Fonkoze

My most substantial collaboration continues to be with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest and most successful microfinance institution. (See: www.fonkoze.org.) Fonkoze provides small loans to poor, mainly rural Haitian businesswomen. It is a very dynamic institution. Last year, I reported that it had grown from 29 to 32 branches. It now has 37, and expects to have 40 by the end of the year. Its reach extends to nearly every part of Haiti, with roughly 54,000 microcredit borrowers and a realistic vision to serve over 200,000 by 2011.

My work with Fonkoze has continued to have three very different emphases: I help Fonkoze with the educational programs it offers its members, with educational aspects of other programs, and with grant writing and reporting. I am less and less involved with the details of the standard educational offerings. Fonkoze’s first-rate educational administrator, Myriam Narcisse, manages a staff that handles the basic elements of its Literacy, Business Skills, and Reproductive Health classes. Myriam and I confer about some of her bigger decisions, and she uses me to write some of the reports she owes to funding institutions, but she’s really the one running the show. I was very involved, however, in getting Fonkoze’s two new modules off the ground. They were designed by teams led by an American educator, Kathleen Cash.

Cash has worked all over the world, and had already worked for Fonkoze as the creator of the Reproductive Health module. (See: Reproductive Health) She returned to Haiti to design new programs in Children’s Rights and Environmental Protection. Her process is extremely interesting. She trains local field workers to do very long interviews with people about the topic of a program she’s creating. Those interviews are not surveys. They’re not designed to collect opinions or facts. They’re designed instead to invite people to tell their stories, to share their experiences. They capture the way people talk about questions that affect them. Cash takes the results of these interviews and turns them into stories that bring out questions for people to talk about. She has those stories turned into comic books. Groups read the stories together, talk about the issues they raise, and then engage in role-playing that pushes them to imagine themselves dealing with the issues in new ways. Fonkoze has lots of evidence that shows how much these programs can change participants’ outlooks, their ways of talking, and their lives. I led the workshop both for the women who were to teach the first pilot run of these new modules and for the Fonkoze staff that would support them. That was last fall, and the pilot is complete. The evaluation was very promising, and we will now be looking for funding to provide the classes to more Fonkoze members.

I continue to assist Fonkoze with its internal learning. One example was my leadership of the opening retreat for the staff of its Active Learning Center in Lenbe. (See: Getting Started.) The Active Learning Center is a branch office, but it’s also much more. Its staff was selected from Fonkoze’s most successful employees. Their double mission is, first, to build a model branch that can be used to train staff from other branches and experiment with new approaches and programs and, second, to help Fonkoze learn more about how members’ businesses actually work. The objective of the opening retreat was to develop first-year goals for the branch that its whole staff would take responsibility for. An interview with Lenbe credit agent Wendy, which appeared in Fonkoze’s most recent newsletter, speaks to the retreat’s success. Wendy is a young man from the Haitian northeast, whose mother has been a Fonkoze member and an employee. He spoke of the branch’s objectives, and forcefully explained the responsibility he feels for them all. He explained that he signed all of them, both those directly related to his work as a credit agent and those that related to other areas, and so that he must do whatever it takes to ensure that all are attained.

My other very important role at Fonkoze is to assist its Director, Anne Hastings, raise the funds necessary to keep it growing. Sometimes that means communicating for her with donors, whether as a translator in the field in Haiti or through letters, formal reports, informal essays, or e-mails. Often it means brainstorming with her and others about grant proposals and then writing first drafts. This has been the area of my work most affected by the hurricanes. One of my most important tasks while I’ve been at Shimer has been to help Fonkoze raise the funds it needs to help borrowers who lost their businesses during the hurricanes re-capitalize themselves with new, interest-free loans. It has been gratifying to see the success of this initiative, which has thus far raised almost $4 million. Working with Anne and her staff has been an experience that I treasure increasingly as time passes. The men and women that lead her organization – Alexandre Hector, Thomas Prophil, Gauthier Dieudonné, Myriam Narcisse – are constantly teaching me, leading me to places and experiences I could not have discovered without them. And that is just as true of the staffs they lead and the members they serve. But Anne herself is someone very special. I’ve never known, much less worked with, anyone quite like her. I’m learning more than I can say, about things I did not know that I would want to understand. I look forward to finding myself regularly sitting in her Port au Prince office once again.

Matènwa Community Learning Center and AAPLAG

My longest running collaboration has been with two institutions on the island of Lagonav, in the bay across from Port au Prince. I was first invited there by Beyond Borders, my original host in Haiti, in 1997. (See: BeyondBorders.net.) I visit Matènwa, a village in the mountains in the center of the island, about once each month. The community school there, the Matènwa Community Learning Center, is a real haven for non-violent, student-centered education. It’s a model school that has succeeded at organizing a network of schools across the island that work towards eliminating violent corporal punishment and towards implementing a respectful approach that replaces memorization with understanding, lecture with dialogue, French with Creole. (See: www.matenwa.org.) The school regularly hosts visitors from the mainland and abroad who make the long and difficult trip in order to observe its approach. We continue to work together, discussing both classroom issues and administrative ones. One of the most important conversations that we held together this past year was one that involved a major change at the school. It had been running a junior high school program in the afternoons, but the school’s staff had become increasingly frustrated with the quality of that program. They were not convinced that the part-time teachers they were hiring for that program were clear enough about the kind of education the school hopes to offer, and they didn’t feel as though they were doing enough to help students transition from an elementary-school to a high-school approach.

So the school made two related decisions: First, the middle school program would be moved to the mornings so that its faculty could be more fully integrated into the school staff and its directors would be in a better position to monitor and support their classroom work. Second, a very experienced member of the primary school staff, Enel Angervil, would take over seventh grade. His mission would be to prepare students for eighth and ninth grade classes, in which students work have different teachers for different subjects and have the kind of increased responsibility for their own education that high school traditionally entails. We also have been supporting the school as it has opened its new library, the first one on the island of Lagonav.

I’ve been helping its first librarian, Benaja Antoine, with some of the reporting he has had to do to the library’s funders, and we arranged for him to visit Shimer this fall to spend some time with Shimer’s own librarian, Colleen McConnell. Some of the same people who work at the school in Matènwa are important members of our other partner on Lagonav, the Association of Activists and Peasants of Lagonav, AAPLAG. It is a network of community organizers involved in everything from disaster preparedness and agriculture, to microcredit and literacy. They have had a strong literacy program for many years, but had been looking to change it. They wanted it to focus less on teaching reading and writing, though these skills are important enough, and more on helping participants organize themselves for community change.

After a year of experimenting in Matènwa with a new approach, called REFLECT, that organizes literacy lessons around participative research projects, a group of us decided to initiate a second experiment in the village of Lataniers, on the far western corner of the island. This center has been a spectacular success. Improvements in reading and writing were strong, as they typically are for successful AAPLAG literacy centers, but the Lataniers center’s achievements in community development were without precedent. Center members identified 40 children in the village who were not attending school and arranged for 38 of them to attend. They built a bridge across a large pool of standing water that collects in the center of town and makes access to the gardens outside of town difficult. They cut a new path into the side of a mountain where the previous path had been a regular place of accidents both for people and the animals that carry their loads. (See: Pointe des Lataniers.)

After reviewing the results of the experiment, AAPLAG decided to expand it for the coming year. There will be five REFLECT literacy centers in different communities in the northwest part of the island. The organization hopes that such slow growth will help it develop a staff capable of managing a REFLECT-based literacy program across the island.

IDEAL

One of my most intense engagements has been my involvement with IDEAL, a youth group in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum. We met over two years ago, when a neighbor of theirs, a long-time friend of mine invited me to begin meeting with them. What started as simply a regular discussion group turned into an English class, then something like a constitutional congress. (See: IDEAL.)

We helped the group open a bakery and start to clean its own streets (See: IDEAL Cleans Up), and then to open a school for local children who had not been attending school. Last March they elected new leadership, and the transition to those new leaders was successful. Though the bakery has been an up and down affair as they learn to manage a business and themselves, the school has not. They kept their little school open for about a dozen first graders last year, and by the time schools in Haiti were ready to open in October, they had 45 kids ready to go this fall. They now have a first grade group and a second grade group, and though Shimer has provided funding for faculty development, for preparing their classrooms, and for books and other educational materials, the staff still works for nothing. They split up teaching duties, and thus ensure that the classes are staffed five afternoons every week. The members of IDEAL have spoken regularly about their desire to learn to use computers, and, what’s more, I now get occasional e-mail from them that prove they are serious. I therefore decided to bring them a couple of inexpensive laptops when I return in December. I hope it is a way to help them move themselves forward.

Conclusion

These are just the largest involvements that I have had and expect to have. One of the beauties of my increasing time here is that I come across more people and more groups who are interested in working together. There are groups from the States, who seek help with translation or other aspects of visiting Haiti, and groups in Haiti, who look for ways to strengthen their education programs. I am expecting to hit the ground running when I return in December. There is, of course, plenty to do.

I expect to spend all of 2009 in Haiti. As things move forward, I’ll be talking with my colleagues at Shimer about plans for January 2010. That feels like a long way away.

General Update Fall 2007

Once again, a year has passed. It’s time for me to write another summary of my activities in Haiti. I’ve now been living and working here in Haiti for almost three years. I make an effort to keep my friends outside of Haiti informed about my work through the photos and essays that I post on the site. I hope they are interesting. I know that I’ve slowed down some. They’ve gotten a good deal less frequent. But writing them continues to been an important source of learning for me and of encouragement when, as occasionally happens, a reader responds with questions of comments.

Once again, I am dividing the report by partner. I hope that reading it is useful. Please e-mail me with any questions at sjwerlin@shimer.edu.

Fonkoze

My most substantial collaboration continues to be with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest and most successful micro finance institution. Fonkoze provides small loans to poor, mainly rural Haitian businesswomen. It is a very dynamic institution. Having grown from 29 to 32 branches so far this year, it will have 34 by year’s end. As many as eight additional branches may open in 2008. Its reach extends to nearly every part of Haiti, with roughly 50,000 micro credit borrowers and a realistic vision to serve over 200,000 by 2011.

From its beginning, Fonkoze has known that as important as access to credit can be in the fight against poverty, it is not enough. Fonkoze supplements its lending with educational programs like Basic Literacy, Business Development Skills, and Reproductive Health Education. The programs are provided to Fonkoze’s members free of charge. For women living in poverty, the struggle to provide for their families and to pay back their loans with interest is hard enough. Asking them to pay for educational programs, as important as these might be, would be unrealistic.

The programs are inexpensive. It costs about $25 to offer a participant a four-month class. But the scale of the institution means that they require a lot of money nonetheless. Full implementation of educational programs all Fonkoze branches would have cost about $2.4 million in 2007.

My involvement with Fonkoze started small: I was to work with a team of its literacy experts to develop a complete set of lesson plans for the Basic Literacy curriculum. It soon spread from coordinating the implementation and reporting for a large grant covering programs in three branches, to grant-writing and reporting on all of Fonkoze’s educational programs, to hiring of staff. I also have translated for Fonkoze visitors and conducted client interviews for publication. Fonkoze calls me its Director of Education.

We’ve met with some success. By late in 2005, Fonkoze had educational programs operating in only six of its branches. Thanks to aggressive pursuit of grants and other monies, we’ve had programs in 23 branches in 2007. My grant writing duties have extended beyond just the literacy programs. In all, I’ve had a hand in raising about $1.8 million for Fonkoze, with more on the way.

Last year, I wrote that I was encouraging Fonkoze to hire a full-time director for its educational programs. The program had outgrown what I could keep up with. It did so shortly after I wrote my summary. Though Myriam Narcisse is not fulltime, she is a first rate administrator, and is providing the program with the leadership it needs. Hiring her has freed me to concentrate more on writing and on working with Fonkoze’s field staff.

And working closely with field staff remains important. Though we have taken a range of measures to push the programs more towards dialogue, the shift is challenging for a staff which itself has little experience of education through conversation.

One step that has proven enormously helpful in this respect has been the hiring of Emmanuel Blaise, an educator who has a strong background in dialogue through his long participation in Wonn Refleksyon, of Reflection Circles, the method based on the Touchstones Discussion Project that I helped establish with the Beyond Borers team that originally invited me to Haiti. Manno is in the field almost fulltime, working with Fonkoze staff.

In addition, as its need for a steady stream of new employees has increased, Fonkoze has become aware of problems in the way it trains them. I have been participating in its attempt to address this problem in two ways.

First, over the past year, I have become increasingly involved in working with both new and experienced field staff from outside its education department. I’ve been focusing especially on loan officers, the staff member with the most important face-to-face relationship with member/clients. Fonkoze’s method of making loans requires, among other things, that these officers be capable of leading meetings at which their borrowers do most of the talking. In a larger sense, they need to be good listeners. And I’ve been creating lesson plans that help them lead discussions and been working with them individually and at large workshops as they learn to use these plans. (See: Security in Foche, What Conversations are About, More about Texts.)

Second, I assisted in conceiving a new kind of branch to be opened in Lenbe, in northern Haiti. I also helped secure several hundred thousand dollars of funding to make the branch possible. The Lenbe branch will be a master branch. We’re calling it an “Active Learning Center.” It will be a locus of Fonkoze’s efforts to improve its work in two senses. On one hand, it will have an advanced capacity for field research and analysis, with two staff members dedicated to better understanding issues like how Fonkoze’s programs affect its clients and what opportunities there are for those clients within the economy they live in. On the other, it will be staffed by experienced and strong-performing employees from across the Fonkoze system. They will be charged with the responsibility to serve as guides for apprentices who come to the branch for short-term stays.

I am now working with Fonkoze leadership to open the branch and to learn how to use the opportunities it will afford. I expect this work to be a major part of my activities in the coming year.

I also want to help Fonkoze find more English-speaking staff to help with the grant writing and the communication with donors that takes up a good deal of my time, time that I could usefully spend in other ways. It is my view that Liberal Arts types, with strong writing and analytical skills, could be very useful here, and I want to help Fonkoze figure out how to attract such help.

Matènwa Community Learning Center

My longest running collaboration has been with the school in Matènwa. We’ve regularly undertaken little projects together – books, articles, or techniques we decided to study – even during the years I was based in Waukegan. For example, we once spent a few days reading a French version of an ancient geometry text by Euclid. We wanted to see whether participating in conversations about definitions and proofs could help them to see more openness in mathematics and to discover ways to open up their own teaching of math.

It’s not easy to summarize what we have done together. Much of our work amounts mainly to a little bit of this, a little bit of that: small classroom experiments like one I undertook in map making with the fifth grade teacher, Enel Angervil, and his students. (See: Mapping Our World.) I helped the sixth graders occasionally with math as they were preparing for the national primary school graduation exam and even served as their substitute teacher for a day. (See: Kou Siplimantèa.) I also led a two-day seminar on using microscopes in the classroom.

But there were two larger initiatives we undertook together as well. One was a first experiment with a literacy method called “REFLECT”, the other was a workshop we designed led together on the psychology of learning for teaches for other Lagonav schools. I’ve written about both. (See: Learning to REFLECT and Lekol Nomal Matenwa.)

The REFLECT center had mixed results. We learned a lot, but we can’t say we were really pleased with the degree to which we were able to engage participants or the progress they made. One conclusion that suggested itself was that Matènwa, where the center was located, has had enough literacy work over the years that the participants we were left to serve were already the hardest to help. Another was that, those who did come to the center had seen enough literacy work in their area over the years that they had already developed fixed ideas as to how those centers should function. They wanted books very focused on letters and syllables, whereas REFLECT was asking them to focus on community development and thinking about their own lives.

So we decided to attempt a second experience with REFLECT this year in another part of Lagonav. It was an easy decision to make, because we had colleagues from Pointe des Lataniers, a small village on the western tip of the island, who were anxious to find some way of combining literacy work with the work of facing the community’s very substantial problems.

Initial results are exciting. If nothing else, the community is participating, and they are starting to face the problems that REFLECT helps them identify. One problem we had in Matènwa was that the number of consistent participants was low. We had dropouts throughout the year. In Lataniers, we started with about 15 participants, but that number has doubled in the weeks following the center’s opening as community members began seeing what was going on in the center. In addition, participants are already making clear progress. They’ve hauled rocks to raise an area of the community where persistent flooding has left lots of standing water, they’ve undertaken a thorough study of the numbers of children in the area who are not in school, and they’ve identified sanitation and standing water as the issues they most need to address.

We will have problems. Lataniers is a nuisance to get to, so it’s hard to provide the center’s leader, Robert Sterlin, with much technical support. Even telephone communication requires that he travel to the next town. But I think there’s reason for optimism.

We are now in the process of following up the summer psychology workshop. This has two aspects. The most direct follow-up was a decision by the participants in that workshop to create a standing committee to plan further faculty development meetings for Lagonav teachers. The committee has monthly meetings. When I visit next week, I should be able to gain a good sense of the progress they’ve made. I’ve also begun to help the staff think more about its role as providers of faculty development for other schools. The school has a growing reputation, and so has groups of teachers who spend days or even weeks observing and practicing its methods. (See: Where Education Happens.) I’ve been asked to help the school develop both a clear program and an approach to evaluating these interns that will be useful to the institutions that send them and consistent with the school’s core values.

IDEAL

Last October, I began working with a new group, young men from Belekou, a neighborhood in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum. (See: Meeting a New Group.) It has quickly become the most intense involvement I have, even if it remains something I squeeze into my spare time.

The involvement has been intense because of the level of need that the guys initially showed. I had never really met with a group that hadn’t already been organized to some degree, whether as a classroom of students, a school’s faculty, or an organization’s members or its staff. The guys in Belekou didn’t really see themselves as anything, except as young men who wanted to make progress without entering into the logic of gang membership.

The first thing the group asked for was English classes, and as hard I it was for me to imagine their usefulness, I felt bound to follow their lead. (See: Progress Without Direction.) Another of their first priorities was to get organized. This they understood to mean establishing their organizational identity on paper. By inviting an old friend, Gerald Lumarque, to work with them for two days, I was able to help them accomplish that goal. (See: IDEAL.)

But those were the easiest kind of goals to accomplish. More meaningful goals, like helping them find ways to work together to change their lives for the better have naturally been more elusive. Even so, I think we’re making progress of this front.

They were able, with my help, to secure a loan to open a small bakery. And though the bakery isn’t yet functioning very well, it is functioning. They are making their scheduled repayments, though not quite on schedule, and regularly improving the way they function in terms of transparency, fair division of labor.

They have recently begun to focus on a newer, more ambitious goal. They’d like to open a school for kids in their neighborhood that haven’t had the chance to attend. This will require stretching themselves. They’ll need to stretch their imagination to think about what a school can be without all the resources that even the poorer schools they are familiar with depend on. And they’ll need to stretch themselves as they figure out how to do the various parts of the job that they’ll need to do, like teaching, administrating, and dealing with parents.

Working with them to build a business and a school will be a challenge. The guys are not the only ones who’ll have to stretch themselves. But both initiatives should be able to exemplify what learning together with my collaborators can mean.

Conclusion

These are just the largest involvements that I have had and expect to have. One of the beauties of my increasing time here is that I come across more people and more groups who are interested in working together. There are groups from the States, who seek help with translation or other aspects of visiting Haiti, and groups in Haiti, who look for ways to strengthen education programs they run or want to run.

As I wrote last year, there continues to be plenty to do here in Haiti. Shimer College last spring agreed to extend my assignment here in Haiti through this current academic year. There is, in other words, no reason for me to think of returning before September 2008.

Fall 2006

It’s been a year since I’ve written a general summary of my work. I’ve now been living and working in Haiti for almost two years. Once again it is time to offer a clear account my activities.

I hope that the essays and pictures that I post on the website are interesting. Assembling them continues to been an important source of learning for me.

As I did last year, I am again dividing the report by collaborator. It still seems like the most sensible way to organize an account because so much of my work is determined by particular partners’ needs.

I hope that reading the report is useful. Please e-mail me with any questions at steven.werlin@gmail.com. Though I still use my Shimer e-mail address, it has been casing me lots of grief lately. This new gmail address may be more reliable.

Fonkoze

My most substantial collaboration continues to be with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest and most successful micro finance institution. Fonkoze provides small loans, starting at about $75 for most clients, without collateral to poor, mainly rural Haitian businesswomen. It currently has 29 branches scattered throughout Haiti, with almost 40,000 micro credit borrowers.

From its beginning, Fonkoze has known that as important as access to credit can be in the fight against poverty, it is not enough. Fonkoze supplements its lending with educational programs like Basic Literacy, Business Development Skills, and Health Education. The programs are provided to Fonkoze’s members free of charge. For women living in poverty, the struggle to provide for their families and to pay back their loans with interest is hard enough. Asking them to pay for educational programs, as important as these might be, would be unrealistic.

The programs are inexpensive. It costs about $25 to offer a participant a four-month class. But the scale of the institution means that they require a lot of money nonetheless. Full implementation of educational programs all Fonkoze branches would have cost about $1.3 million in 2006.

My involvement with Fonkoze started small: I was to work with a team of its literacy experts to develop a complete set of lesson plans for the Basic Literacy curriculum. It soon spread from coordinating the implementation and reporting for a large grant covering programs in three branches, to grant-writing and reporting on all of Fonkoze’s educational programs, to hiring of staff. I also have translated for Fonkoze visitors and conducted client interviews for publication. Fonkoze now calls me its Director of Education.

We’ve met with some success. By late in 2005, Fonkoze had educational programs operating in only six of its branches. Thanks to aggressive pursuit of grants and other monies, we’ll soon have programs in thirteen branches. It’s well short of what we hope for, but represents substantial progress nonetheless. We also finished a revision of the lesson plans for Basic Literacy and created a Basic Literacy 2 class, with appropriate lesson plans, in response to a sense that the Basic Literacy program was not getting participants as far as they need to go. Now we are entering into the process of creating two new programs, one in Human Rights, emphasizing the rights of children, and one in environmental protection.

In the coming year, I expect the collaboration to shift, but continue. I am currently encouraging Fonkoze to hire a full-time director for its educational programs. The program has outgrown what I can keep up with. Administration is neither my main interest nor a particular strength. If Fonkoze hires a strong administrator, I will be freer to focus on grant-writing and to work more closely with staff in the field.

And working closely with field staff remains important. Though we have taken a range of measures to push the programs more towards dialogue, towards methods that emphasize equal participation by all, such shifts are challenging for a staff which itself has little experience of education through conversation. The more coaching we can provide, the more we can model the kind of classroom interaction we’re hoping for, the more Fonkoze’s education programs will be able to nurture the independence, the self-confidence, and the long-term solidarity they seek to develop among members.

Matènwa Community Learning Center

The collaboration with the school in Matènwa has been flourishing for years. We regularly had little projects we’d undertake together – books, articles, or techniques we decided to study – even during the years I was based in Waukegan. For example, we once spent a few days reading a French version of an ancient geometry text by Euclid together. We wanted to see whether participating in conversations about definitions and proofs could help them to see more openness in mathematics and to discover ways to open up their own teaching of math.

Last year, our priority was to develop a new approach to using Wonn Refleksyon, the discussion activity they’ve been using at various levels in their school for some years. They had felt that while their standard approach could continue to be effective as part of their staff development work, it wasn’t quite what they wanted for their work with students. On one hand, the felt that some of the usual Wonn Refleksyon activities required a maturity from participant that their kids don’t have. On the other, they thought that Wonn Refleksyon could be adapted to provide their students with practice at writing, an important school objective that the activity had not previously been designed to attain.

The idea stemmed from I visit I arranged for Benaja, the fourth-grade teacher, to a group in Darbonne that was developing a teacher’s guide for the Wonn Refleksyon book for non-readers. He was impressed not just with the lesson plan the Darbonne produced in a two-hour meeting, but also be the way the process of creating a lesson plan was developing the teachers’ understanding of Wonn Refleksyon, too.

So at Matènwa we decided we’d use regular Wonn Refleksyon meetings to create a new guide for teachers, one specially designed for use with fourth graders. In addition to age-appropriate discussion activities, each lesson plan would include a writing assignment as well. While the group was developing this guide, Benaja would be using it with his students and reporting his results.

The other major activity we undertook together last year has been planning the experimental use of a technique for teaching adult literacy that we had not previously used. The method is called “REFLECT.” It starts from a way of helping participants organize their knowledge of their communities. That knowledge is then used in two ways: first, to encourage participants to develop action plans that address community problems and, second, as the basis of lessons in reading and writing. This means that, on one hand, the literacy groups can become sources of community action and, on the other, that reading and writing skills develop in the context of participants’ needs for such skills rather than as skills detached from the other activities of their lives.

Through the course of the spring, a small group of us met regularly to study a manual produced by the approach’s creators. By early summer, the teachers of two planned literacy classes were writing the first lesson plans. In August, one of those teachers led a practice session using participants in a week of training for literacy teachers. Late in August, one of the two teachers opened his literacy class with fifteen participants. Unfortunately, the other planned teacher never was able to follow through and recruit a class to work with. We therefore have only one experimental center this year.

We have a number of plans this coming year: We will be continuing regular Wonn Refleksyon meetings. This year, the meetings will have several objectives. First, there are several relatively new members of the staff, and their experience with Wonn Refleksyon is limited. Second, the whole staff feels it needs help with the more difficult readings in the second volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts. We will be focusing on their use. Other faculty development plans include studying the use of microscopes – the school has had several for a number of years, but the teachers have not felt sufficiently comfortable with their sense of how to use them; they haven’t brought them into their classrooms yet – and group study of Haitian psychology textbook.

Kofaviv

Since February, I have been meeting every week or two with the staff of Kofaviv, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims. It’s an organization of rape victims that provides a range of health, counseling, and advocacy services to other rape victims. We worked through all eighteen lessons of the first volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts, studying the lesson plans for their use that are found in the guidebook we wrote several years ago.

The meetings have gone very well. The women are increasingly engaging me, the texts, and most importantly one another in thoughtful and spirited dialogues. They seem to understand better and better what makes our dialogues work and what they will need to do as discussion leaders to foster similar dialogues elsewhere.

As we move forward, we plan for our collaboration to continue and deepen. They have requested that our regular meetings just continue. We will turn to the second volume of texts for discussion.

In addition, many of them will be founding their own discussion groups in the various neighborhoods of Pòtoprens where they live. These are what are called the “popular neighborhoods,” the extremely poor, densely populated areas that encircle downtown area. They have invited me to make regular visits to observe them teaching in their own neighborhoods, to offer such coaching and encouragement as I can. I’m very excited about the prospect for three reasons. First, it will help me evaluate the work we have done together so far. Second, I have long been interested in those difficult areas of the city that I’ll now have occasion to enter. Third, I find the Kofaviv women fascinating as colleagues. I greatly admire the way they’ve turned the horrors they’ve suffered into an agenda for social change.

Conclusion

These are just the largest involvements that I have had and expect to have. One of the beauties of my increasing time here is that I come across more people and more groups who are interested in working together. There are groups from the States, who seek help with translation or other aspects of visiting Haiti, and groups in Haiti, who look for ways to strengthen education programs they run or want to run. There’s a school in Petyonvil, established last year by a team of teenagers. Its budget is almost zero – students pay nothing, and teachers are not paid – but it’s rumbling merrily along, running, I suppose, on the fumes that their shared enthusiasm creates. The staff would like some help charting their direction, and a first meeting with them left me greatly impressed. There are representatives from the Archdiocese of Richmond, Virginia, who invited my partner Frémy and me to join them on a visit to Haiti’s Central Plateau to help them create new connection to members of the Haitian parish with which they are twinned.

So there continues to be plenty to do here in Haiti. Shimer College last spring agreed to extend my assignment here in Haiti through this current academic year. There is, in other words, no reason for me to think of returning before September 2007.

Fall 2005

I’ve now been living and working in Haiti since the middle of January. The time has come to give all of you who have done so much to make this work possible a clear account of what I’ve been up to. The report is long, and I’m sorry about that. but I’d like to be more-or-less complete, even if it means exceeding usual and reasonable bounds.

I hope that you are able occasionally to check the essays that I put on this website, and that you find them interesting. They cover a range of topics in a not-very-orderly way. Their freedom is something I enjoy about writing them. I can write about whatever I find striking at a given moment. At the same time, I think that a more organized and complete report, a summary, will convey better than the essays can the range of work we’re involved in and what we think we’re achieving by it.

Most of work can be conveniently divided into distinct collaborations, and that is the way this report is divided. I hope it is useful.

The Matènwa Community Learning Center

Our longest-running collaboration in Haiti is our work with the Matènwa Community Learning Center. It’s a rural primary school, located in the mountains on the island of Lagonav, just off the Haitian mainland. We’ve been traveling back and forth to Matènwa since 1997, though our initial work was more with the local literacy program than with the school.

In early 2000, our colleague Erik Badger started spending one week each month in Matènwa, working both with the literacy program and with the school. He kept that up for more than a year. The school’s staff often points to their work with Erik as a turning point. It was through the introduction of Wonn Refleksyon, which they carried out with him, that they learned how to talk together and, so, to work together as well. All that quite apart from any advantages it’s produced in their classrooms. Since that time, almost all my trips to Haiti have included at least a short visit to the school. We’ve worked at translating French into Creole, at studying geometry – a range of things.

As I looked towards my return to Haiti in January, the school’s teachers and I had already been able to clarify what we wanted to do. Over the last couple of years we had read short texts together, such texts as could be read during occasional visits of just a few days. We wanted to try something longer, more complex, something that would make use of the new possibilities that my long-term presence in Haiti offers.

I entered the country in January with twenty copies of a short book by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. The Learning Center is already unique among the schools I visit in Haiti in the way it creates a non-violent, child-centered environment for the children who attend it. Reading Piaget, however, gave the teachers a deeper sense of some of the reasoning behind a child-centered approach. They began to understand why Piaget thinks that only a child-centered approach could make sense for schools. Not only that, we all improved as readers of French, and we made progress in our ability to learn together from what we read.

When we finished the book in April, the teachers wanted to start a more general study of psychology. We found a Haitian psychology textbook, and we used the teachers’ summer vacation to organize two one-week sessions that enabled us to get most of the way through it. We’ll need two more meetings to get us the rest of the way. The same Haitian publisher is right now coming out with an educational psychology textbook that will be a fitting sequel. Meeting together every two or three weeks through the school year should be more than enough to study that book as well.

A separate part of our collaboration with the Learning Center has been support for its schoolyard garden. I have served as liaison to the school for an American foundation that made a substantial gift to support development of the garden.

The garden is important for the school in several ways. It provides a science laboratory, giving students and teachers an inviting place to study their local environment while they develop as inquirers; it serves as a model, helping students and others see how to start and develop vegetable gardens of their own; it produces thousands of tree seedlings each year to contribute to the badly-needed reforestation of the region; and it provides local fresh produce to supplement the three free meals per week that the school serves.

As liaison, I’ve helped the Center’s staff to understand reporting requirements and to write their reports. I’ve also translated the reports in English for the foundation.

GTAPF

GTAPF is the Gwoupman Tèt Ansanm Peyizan Fayèt. That means “the Fayette Group of Peasants Putting Their Heads Together.” It’s a group of peasants who live in a rural area outside of Dabòn. They have been working in various ways to improve community life, from promoting civic education to building outhouses to offering literacy programs.

It is in this last respect that we’ve been working with them. One thing that sets our collaboration with GTAPF apart from our other work is that Shimer has fully funded the entire literacy program. We finance purchase of the necessary materials, we pay the teachers and their coordinator, and we fund their training and evaluation.

Frémy and I have been an important part of the training. We meet nearly weekly with the whole team of literacy teachers, helping them introduce a discussion component into their classes. We are learning together how to use the Wonn Refleksyon process with non-readers. Over the last couple of years, our team in Haiti designed a book that uses images and Haitian proverbs as sources of the topics for discussion. Thanks to help from Donna Struck and Tina Shirmer, at Dynapace Corporation, we’ve had a supply of the books to work with.

Participants using the new book might end up talking about the woman in a painting by Vermeer or about accumulated Haitian folk wisdom. What matters is that they’re learning to express themselves in a group, listen to one another, and figure out what they think.

Our initial plan had been to simply train the literacy teachers in the use of the book. This would prepare them for the classroom, develop their ability to work as a team, and teach us how such trainings can work. We thought that while we worked with the teachers over the course of several months we could also produce a guidebook for discussion leaders to accompany the book. Such a book would enable people with a minimum of preparation to work with groups.

At this point each of our weekly meetings is led by one of the literacy teachers using a lesson plan that he or she designs. What we’ve learned is that the experience the teachers are having as they put lesson plans together and try them out is so valuable that we’ve begun to doubt the wisdom of creating a single guidebook that would remove the need for the teachers to do that work themselves. Figuring out what makes the most sense both for the teachers of GTAPF and for our project as a whole will be one of our priorities in the months to come.

Lekòl Anonsyasyon/ Rasin Lespwa

Over the course of these months, we’ve been involved with two different educational institutions in Darbonne, the market town near Léogane where Frémy has his home and we have our office. I lump these initiatives together in part because they’ve involved a number of the same people, in part because the work has been similar.

Rasin Lespwa (Roots of Hope) is a cultural organization that runs a community library and organizes a range of educational and cultural activities. Lekòl Anonsyasyon (The Annunciation School) is a primary school, based at the local Episcopal church, that serves children who would not otherwise be able to afford to go to school. When I arrived in January, the two institutions had already planned with me to lead a seminar that would meet weekly. The text they had chosen for us to study together was Emile, Rousseau’s book on education.

We met until school ended in June. It was a major investment of time and energy for all of us, and it’s still hard to see results. Rousseau’s vision is a way to teach that is child-centered in the extreme, and the teachers are having a hard time seeing how to apply its lessons. At the same time it did offer them a perspective very different from their own and this has led to some questioning of their traditional practices.

This summer, we followed up that seminar with a two-week short course on a book of essays by Piaget. The advantage to the Piaget book is that his arguments are more rooted in clear claims about how children develop. It helped teachers see more clearly why it would be better if they could develop ways to center their practices around what is appropriate for a child.

At the same time, a lot of work remains to be done. Deciding to adopt a child-centered approach is one thing. Figuring out how to do so in circumstances that do not at all favor one is something else. The teachers will need to work together creatively and with determination if they are to design and implement new ways to teach, ways that make sense for the environments they work in. A meeting to plan follow-up of the seminar is scheduled for the end of September.

Fonkoze

The largest single demand being made on my time right now is by Fonkoze, a large micro credit institution that provides a range of banking services to Haiti’s rural poor. The initial commitment that Frémy and I made to Fonkoze was narrow. They needed three kinds of help:

  1. To integrate a version of Wonn Refleksyon into their literacy program as a dialogue component.
  2. To design simple lesson plans that would help literacy teachers, many of whom are poorly educated, organize the courses they teach.
  3. To design an approach to preparing the literacy teachers to use the lesson plans.
    Fonkoze chose Twoudinò, a city in the northeast of Haiti, as testing ground for the new approach. Frémy and I met with Fonkoze staff through the spring, finally designing a one-week introductory workshop in April. I went to Twoudinò in May to participate in the workshop.

That’s when the commitment started to expand. The project in Twoudinò is one of three that are part of a set of contracts that Fonkoze has with Plan International, a major NGO. Fonkoze has found it increasingly difficult to maintain consistent funding for its literacy projects. In May, it was forced to shut down most of its literacy operations. Only those branches – less than a quarter of the total – whose literacy programs have direct funding from donors have been able to keep their programs going.

In this environment, Fonkoze has needed to change the way it administers literacy. Each program is now accountable to its separate donor, who may have very specific reporting requirements and may expect very specific results.

Fonkoze asked us to help its field staff work with the contract it has with Plan. This has involved everything from helping them understand the contract and its budget, to keeping track of reporting requirements, to supervising and mentoring staff. I have also been involved directly in Fonkoze’s communications with PLAN.

Fonkoze now considers me its Acting Director of Education. That means that I’m helping to design and implements improvements in its preparation and support of literacy teachers in response to what I hear from field staff and what I see in the field.

With over twenty branches scattered through Haiti and over 26,000 borrowers, Fonkoze is by far the largest institution I have worked for since I was at the University of Alabama in the 1980’s. The way it combines financial services with educational programs makes it a very exciting organization for me because it offers its clients a full range of the tools they need to improve their own lives and the lives of their children, their families, and their communities. I can easily see the collaboration growing over the next months. It could grow in quantity as additional Fonkoze branches receive funding for their educational programs. It could also deepen in quality as the range of tasks that a Director of Education, even a provisional one, can help with becomes clearer.