As far as I can remember, Saturday was the first time I’ve had to take off my pants in order to get to a class. I must have made quite a spectacle: a lone blan, crossing the river in his underwear, with his pants in one hand and his sandals in the other.
Since the demise of my chakos, I depend on sandals that are less resilient than my feet, so I took the sandals off in order to ford the river barefoot. I took off my pants because the water was high enough in places to muddy them, shorts though they were, and I didn’t want to sit through the class in shorts caked with the mud that the water was carrying with it.
Frémy and I normally drive to our Saturday morning workshops in Fayette in his small four-wheel-drive, but there’s been quite a bit of rain, so the river between Nan Mapou and Fayette was too high for the car. We thought about missing the class and sending our apologies. The group would understand. Rain is a common and acceptable excuse for all sorts of absences in Haiti. But Frémy had missed the previous week because of work elsewhere, leaving me to meet with the group alone, and it seemed important to keep up the group’s momentum. So we took off our clothes, and waded across.
The real difficulty I encountered as I crossed was not the feeling that I was making a spectacle of myself. Not only were all the Haitians, in whichever direction they were crossing, in the very same boat as I was, but I simply could not live here in Haiti as I do if I was too sensitive about the attention I draw to myself. I’m used to it. The real difficulty was that the water was so muddy that I could not see where I was putting my feet. I was stepping from underwater rock to underwater rock, and my unaccustomed feet were having a hard time of it. They are too soft, and many of the rocks simply hurt. Feeling my way little-by-little was slow and painful work.
The group in Fayette is the part of our collaboration that Frémy and I are sharing most closely these days, and so we value it for that. In addition, the work is interesting in itself. We were invited to collaborate with the group of adult literacy teachers and community organizers in February, and we began soon after that. This is the second year that the teachers are holding literacy classes in centers supported directly by Shimer College. Our collaboration with them is the most extensive Wonn Refleksyon training that we’ve ever undertaken. We have a longterm commitment to weekly two-hour meetings with bi-monthly day-long workshops as well. The size of the time commitment is especially welcome because we’ve had the sense that the shorter, more limited workshops we’ve generally undertaken have been shallower than we would like.
But there’s yet another reason we’re so interested in the collaboration: The group in Fayette is the one currently experimenting most seriously with the book that we created for non-readers. That book is called Annou Reflechi Ansanm. In English that means “Let’s Ponder Together.” The book uses pictures and Haitian proverbs as topics of conversation, rather than the texts that our other books have been based on. Each of the literacy teachers is committed to leading weekly meetings with his or her group, and so their work and the time we spend with them combine to offer us the chance to learn a lot about how the book functions in a classroom and about how to help teachers use it most effectively. Our core strategy has thus far been to lead the group through the creation of weekly lesson plans, to create a kind of teachers’ edition, or guidebook, in collaboration with them. A weekly lesson plan can give them a clear sense of how to lead their classes, and the process of creating it each week pushes them to think in specific, concrete terms about the challenges that their groups are facing, the particular objectives that those challenges imply, and the strategies they might employ towards attaining those objectives.
Our team in Haiti began working towards creating guidebooks in 2000. Erik Badger pushed us in that direction, the same direction that the Touchstones Project, our parent in the States, had begun taking more than ten years earlier (www.touchstones.org). Erik was working closely with inexperienced discussion leaders – some of them very inexperienced – who were leading lieracy classes on the island of Lagonav. He felt that the leaders’ understanding of Wonn Refleksyon was marginal at best and that they often seemed lost in fundamental ways as they tried to lead their groups. He suggested that we created a guidebook that would do two separate things. On one hand, it would break down the complicated array of goals that discussion leaders can have for their groups into distinct pieces so that over the course of eighteen to twenty weeks the leaders would have the chance to read about and better understand the various goals. At the same time, each lesson plan would set out a simple procedure that a leader could choose to follow closely. These procedures would give even very inexperienced discussion leaders a way to enter a classroom with a certain degree of confidence in their sense of what they were going to do.
Erik and I wrote an initial draft of the guidebook for our first volume of discussion texts with help from various colleagues over the course of a couple of months. As our network became more and more familiar with it – with its strengths and its weaknesses – we invested time in revising and rewriting it. A large group of us met over the course of several days a few years back to thoroughly rewrite it. Finally, this year Frémy oversaw the publication of a polished version of the revised work. Its roots are still traceable to the work Erik and I originally did, but it has passed through many other hands as well and is much the better for it.
The experience in Fayette is quite different and more interesting than that original one was because, though Frémy and I lead the weekly meetings where the lesson plans are created, the plans are being created nonetheless by the same emerging discussion leaders who’ll take them into the classroom as well. We’re three lesson plans into the process, and I’m impressed both with the plans themselves and the conversations about challenges and objectives that the plans are built upon.
The question of objectives is important. That should be obvious enough, but I’ve also begun to see how critical setting the right objective can be as I’ve observed a friend who tried to use the original guidebook this year with his own group. His name is Benaja Antoine, and he’s the fourth-grade teacher at the Matenwa Community Learning Center, the community school on Lagonav that has become one of my homes here in Haiti. He has been leading weekly discussions with his students over the course of the school year, and has discovered that the guidebook that should have been helping him is more-or-less useless.
And it’s no wonder. All through its early development, the people mainly, most seriously involved were using it to lead groups for adults. And even though we have considerable experience that shows that the same discussion texts can work well with both adults and kids, there’s little reason to suspect that they would work in the very same ways.
The objectives that the current guidebook sets out are a poor fit for Benaja’s students in two respects. On one hand, the guidebook very heavily emphasizes handing leadership of the group over to participants rather quickly. This makes a lot of sense for adults. It is reasonable to hope that they can, relatively quickly, get a sense of the activity and choose to take control of it. With children, things are more complicated. Though it is important for them to feel ownership of the activity, and though they need to be drawn into a share of the responsibility, they also need space to just be kids. Pushing them too hard too fast to lead themselves in conversations that are serious and sustained makes no sense.
On the other hand, the guidebook fails to sufficiently emphasize improving their reading or their ability to consider critically what they read. The kids in Benaja’s fourth-grade class are generally much better readers than are the participants in literacy centers that the guidebook was written for, and so the guidebook doesn’t help a teacher push them as readers nearly as far as it could.
So Benaja and I have decided to work on another guidebook, one especially for use with kids. I’m not yet sure what shape that will take. I don’t know what a new guidebook will look like nor exactly what the process or the timeline for creating it will be. But I have been very impressed with the way creating a guidebook in Fayette is working out, so I look forward to a similar experience in Matenwa.
There are projects that are best, or even necessarily, undertaken step-by-improvised-step. An example is fording a stony river bed barefoot. Each step is a new experiment. There’s not much thinking you can do two or three steps ahead. Leading discussions can be like that too, but it doesn’t need to be. Guidebooks can give discussion leaders a way to look forward to the route their groups might take. More importantly, the process of creating a guidebook can force us all to think through what we are trying to achieve and how we are going about our work. The understandings that emerge are not just deep, but detailed.