A couple of years ago, I was at the University of Oldenburg, in northwest Germany, for a conference of people involved in popular education. The conference couldn’t be what I had hoped it would be for me. I had planned to attend with Frémy, my most important Haitian colleague. I would be his translator, and he would be able to talk as a Haitian about popular education in Haiti. But at the last minute, the European Union denied him the visa he needed to attend, so our chance to talk as a team with international colleagues about our work in Haiti disintegrated.
While in Oldenburg, however, I came across some literacy materials that looked interesting. They were produced and displayed by a London-based international NGO, Action Aid, but they were available in French, so before I left the conference I looked into buying a couple of copies.
Some things take time. The book was not available at Borders or on Amazon. In order to get hold of the book, I arranged for a Shimer colleague who was teaching in England at the time to pay for and pick up four copies. He did so, but they stayed in his hands until he returned to Shimer the following year. Shortly thereafter, he passed the books on to me, and I brought them to Haiti.
The book is a how-to manual, designed help teams implement an approach to literacy called “REFLECT.” The name is one of those awkward, forced-sounding acronyms, too ugly to merit repeating. But the approach itself is interesting enough. Rather than using workbooks, or even pre-selected pictures, as the starting-points for lessons in reading and writing, it uses studies that non-readers can make of their own communities. Participants create graphics that organize knowledge that is already theirs graphically. The graphics might be maps or charts or calendars that they sketch on the ground in an open space outdoors with whatever materials are available: stones, beans, seeds, leaves, sticks. They then use those graphics in two ways: to motivate and plan community action and to develop reading and writing skills. I think the examples I offer below will make this clear.
Just after I entered the country with the books, Abner Sauveur and other friends from Lagonav spoke with me about concerns they had about the long-running and successful literacy program they had been involved in there. The program has, for years, been helping adults in one of the most rural areas of Haiti learn to read and write, but Abner and others were dissatisfied nonetheless. They felt that their literacy centers had begun to resemble ordinary schools too closely. It was as though they were running small academic classrooms for adults.
Such classrooms had never been their intention. The literacy program had been established by a group of community activists called AAPLAG, the Association of Activists and Peasants of Lagonav. They had come to see that organizing themselves and the peasants they serve to improve their communities would simply require that more of the peasants know how to read and write. Community groups, committees, and other organizations require secretaries and treasurers. The local groups that could and should take responsibility for community development were too dependent on literate outsiders make sustainable change happen.
Under the circumstances, REFLECT seemed as though it might be a good fit, but none of us had ever tried it. All we had were a couple of books. I showed them to Abner, and explained as much of the approach as I had gleaned from skimming the book once, and he liked what he heard. So we collected a group of interested people from around Matènwa, and agreed to read the manual together. We hoped that that would both clarify the approach and give us the guidance we’d need to try it out. We also found two literacy teachers who were willing to take the lead in our group. They agreed to study the text with us and implement it in literacy classes they would run for AAPLAG over the coming year. Thanks to a Fonkoze colleague who was making a trip to England, we were able to get hold of a couple of additional books, and we started meeting every two or three weeks, whenever I was in Matènwa. We would read a section of the book in preparation for our meetings, and then discuss them. In other words, we organized ourselves into a more-or-less conventional study group. The more we read, the more we liked. The approach seemed well-suited to putting the accent in the literacy centers back on community development.
So we read through the book, and continued to like what we understood of it. When it seemed as though the time had come to leave general considerations and try to get more concrete, we worked together to write the first lesson plan. The theme we chose for the lesson was trees. One of the many problems facing Lagonav is the lack of them. They’ve been cut down to make the charcoal used for cooking. Farmers needing cash might feel that they have nothing else that they can sell. The graphic we decided to have participants create is a map of their community, showing where all the larger trees in the community are and where they were five years ago.
After participants establish the maps in all its details to everyone’s satisfaction, they will copy it into their notebooks. This act of copying a map they have created is a chance for them to practice using a pencil or pen – a considerable advantage – and a way to ensure they all have records of the group’s work.
They’ll then discuss the map, talking about what it shows. We believe it can provide an occasion for shared reflection about the loss of trees: both about the cause of the loss and about its consequences. They’ll also talk about what they can do about it, individually and collectively. We hope this step will give the program the activist focus its organizers are looking for.
After discussion, it’s time for the actual reading and writing. Together with their teacher, they’ll choose a word that has a place on the map. Early in the process – this is a plan for the first lesson – that word then becomes the basis for a lesson. Participants learn how the word is made of syllables that are, in turn, composed of letters, and they’re encouraged to construct other words they know out of the same or related syllables. What’s crucial is that they are choosing words and writing them, rather than just copying them out of a workbook. Later in the process, the writing lesson can be based on composing sentences and then paragraphs that the group’s discussions suggest.
Numbers have their place as well. Though participants are generally good at doing basic math in their heads, the program aims to teach them to do the same calculations on paper. This step is especcially important for market women, because it means thet they can keep accounts. In this first lesson, they’ll count trees and learn to write and to recognize the numerals that represent the quantities they find.
So we created a lesson plan. The two teachers themselves created a second. But creating them is one thing, using them another thing entirely. We were especially worried about the process of creating a graphic, something unlike any activity any of us had ever led. So we tried an experiment. We were attending the week-long workshop that AAPLAG was holding for all of the literacy teachers it would be using this year, and the workshop organizers asked our REFLECT team to introduce the process to them and to the teachers who would not be using the approach.
We planned to spend about fifteen minutes talking about the REFLECT process and why we wanted to try it out, but we knew it would remain unclear until we offered a demonstration. That demonstration could both help the workshop participants understand what we are up to and also give us the dry run that we felt we needed.
We realized, however, that the lesson we created would not work. The workshop’s participants were from all over Lagonav, a rather large island. A map of the island, showing individual trees was well beyond what we could do.
But over the course of the workshop’s week, we had heard lots of talk about water problems, and we realized that such problems were just the sort of topic we could use. We decided to have participants make a chart. AAPLAG divides the island into six zones, and we would have the group say, for each zone, how much time per day it takes a family to get the water it needs each month of the year. We cleared a space in the middle of the concrete floor in the room where we were working, and listed the months in a column on the left. Then we made six other columns, one for each zone, and invited folks to fill it out.
Their reaction was immediate and lively. They got right to work. There were lots of discussions, both among representatives of individual zones and between those from different zones. Within a half hour, we had a chart that everyone was happy with.
Then we started to talk. We identified the zones where water problems are more acute, and where they are not quite as bad. It turns out there are parts of Lagonav where families need two-fours hours each day all through the year. There are plenty of months during which some zones need a many as six hours. In Zone Six, on the western side of the island, people need eight hours a day for the two hardest months. It became clear as well that different zones have different problems. In some zones, the main problem is the distance to decent water. In others, it’s the length of time one has to wait in line once one gets to a busy water source.
When Robert, who was leading the activity, asked how things had been in the past, we learned a lot more. In several zones, things had formerly been easier. In Zone Six, however, they had been even worse.
This led to a conversation about the differences. Participants from the zones that had been getting worse pointed to loss of trees around the water sources. They said that, as a result of this loss, they had had to dig deeper and deeper to get water and that the water was flowing more slowly than it once had. In Zone Six, things had improved for certain parts of the year because some communities had built rainwater cisterns. When there’s rain, they have that addition source to turn to. If we had had the time, we could have moved directly to the action phase. We would have talked about trees and cisterns. A writing lesson could easily have followed as well.
We left thinking that this demonstration had given us just the help we needed, though it might be too soon to say. Creating a written document on a concrete floor with educated young people is one thing. Working with adult literay learners to create a graphic with rocks and beans and sticks in the middle of a dirt yard will be another. But at least now we can imagine our task with a certain amount of clarity. And imagining a job clearly might be, as they say, half the battle.