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 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.
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:
- To integrate a version of Wonn Refleksyon into their literacy program as a dialogue component.
- To design simple lesson plans that would help literacy teachers, many of whom are poorly educated, organize the courses they teach.
- 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.