I was afraid something of the sort would happen.
Two-thirds of the way through my first experience as a fully-fledged substitute sixth-grade teacher, I was separating two kids who were ready to exchange blows. It was easy enough to do. I simply changed seats with one of them. They weren’t very intent on fighting. But that things had gotten that far didn’t exactly show strong great classroom management skills on my part.
I was taking their class because their teacher is a member of a theatre troop. The troop had been invited to perform in another part of Haiti. The teacher had to miss a day of classes, and her sixth-graders, who are preparing for the national graduation exam they will take this summer, couldn’t really afford to lose the day. Though I doubted my ability to manage a class of twelve and thirteen-year-olds, I couldn’t well say no.
Passing the national sixth-grade exam in Haiti is a big deal. Being in school at all is a right that not all Haitian children can take advantage of. Though the Haitian constitution specifies a right to free primary education, and even makes it compulsory, the reality is that a third of Haitian children never go to school at all and fewer than half of primary-school-age children are in school at any given time.
Of the minority who make it through primary school to take the sixth-grade exam, the percentage that passes is not very high. Though there are elite schools that are able to get virtually every student through, there are many schools where only a few or only very few pass. I’ve written before about my godson’s cousin Vunet, who failed the exam for the second time last year – together with his twin sister and all the other sixth-graders from his school. (See: Vunet).
The Matènwa Community Learning Center takes the exam seriously, though it’s an uncomfortable fit for them and it’s not easy. The school emphasizes learning based, at every level and in every way it can, on understanding gained through practical investigation and on the reality the school’s children face every day. The philosophy fits poorly with the exam, which can tend to emphasize skills and knowledge very much abstracted from life on Lagonav. Many of the schools that get high percentages of children through the exam do it by putting a premium on memorization. In Mèt Anténor’s school, near my home, Anténor consistently gets a high percentage through by spending a lot of time throughout the sixth-grade year testing the kids with old exams and forcing them to memorize what they don’t know.
The Matènwa school has been trying to do things the hard way. They work with the kids in the way they think best for their intellectual and social development, and hope that a consequence will be strong showing on the test.
The results have been mixed. Generally, results for schools on Lagonav have been terrible, and the Matènwa children have done better, but they are by no means passing at a rate the school can be satisfied with. And the school’s staff recognizes the fact that, whatever it thinks of the exam, it has to take it very seriously. Like it or not, it is the gateway to further education for the children of Haiti. Kids who fail cannot go to secondary school.
So they really work hard at it, providing the kids all the time and support they can. For one thing, the have the kids come to school at 6:00 AM, two hours before the other children. And they offer extra afternoon sessions whenever they can. All this extra time is referred to as “kou siplimantè”, or “supplementary classes”.
I first started working with the kids in the afternoons. A very bright but mischievous boy named Josias had asked in his class’s name whether I would do some math with them. He had seen me doing math with his teachers. I readily agreed. I enjoy doing simple math with young people. I’ve discovered that I can help Haitian kids through about the eleventh grade. After that, they start getting beyond what I can easily remember.
The Matènwa kids were doing what looked like a kind of pre-algebra. Here is a sample problem: If seven pumpkins cost $35, how many would ten cost?
They have learned a way to set the problems up by drawing a four-square grid. In the upper left-hand square, the write “7”, and in the upper right-hand one the write “35”. On the lower left-hand side they write “10”, and they draw a question mark in the lower right-hand one.
They then make a large “x,” connecting the diagonal values, and they “cross-multiply.” Under the grid, they can thus write:
35*10 = 7*?
They are taught to “get the question mark by itself” by moving the 7 over to the left-hand side. They then have:
35*10/7 = ?
So they can calculate the answer.
The problem is that, though most of them can remember the procedure pretty reliably, it’s not clear how much of it they understand. For example, most do not know that what they’re doing when they isolate the question mark is dividing **both** sides of the equation by seven, and that, in general, they are always free to treat both sides of an equation in the same way. Their teacher wasn’t around, so I wasn’t even sure what I should expect them to understand. Maybe it’s ok for them to learn the process first.
In any case, we spent a couple of long afternoons working together, so by Friday we had a developed a report. The first thing I noticed was that the kids, who for years had been calling me “Steven” or “Estiven” or “Estiv” were suddenly calling me “Mèt la”, or “master”, the standard title for a teacher who is male.
And there was a lot in the group’s dynamics, in the ways in which the kids worked with and related to one another, that I was figuring out on the fly. To take one example: the kids have a competitive edge. They enjoy putting one another on the spot. They liked it when each person who went to work out a problem at the blackboard got to create the next problem and choose who had to solve it. We were able to spend a lot of time cycling through the class, as each put a progressively harder question on the board for the next.
But along with the competitiveness, there is an equally intense sense of solidarity. It is very hard to evaluate what each one can do because they cannot resist working together. As soon as one of them starts to struggle, other will immediately jump in. I very often asked them not to, but my words had no effect. They couldn’t seem to help themselves.
I eventually got around the problem by creating a question that would be different for each of them. I told them to imagine that their mother had bought them sneakers for a certain price, and then asked them to calculate how much it would cost to purchase sneakers for all their other siblings as well. The question wasn’t as straightforward as I had thought it would be: Some of them needed to know whether half-siblings and step-siblings should be included as well. But I left it up to their own discretion. By the end, we had spent an awful lot of enjoyable and productive time going back and forth between work at the blackboard and work in their little notebooks.
The day I finally took them was, fortunately for me, a half-day. The school sends kids home early every Friday to allow for faculty development. I would have been worried about spending a longer day with them, because my bag of tricks is so limited. Without significant preparation, I can do nothing but math with the kids, and it’s hard to make them spend a whole day that way. But I was glad for the time I was with them. I gave me a larger, though still very incomplete sense, of the challenges the school teachers I work with face.
And the kids are very nice. It’s beautiful to watch them get new stuff down. Young people wear their learning so vividly on their sleeves.