Lekòl Nòmal Matènwa

Actually, there is no “Lekòl Nòmal Matènwa”. At least, not yet. A “lekòl nòmal” is a school of education, and Matènwa doesn’t have one. What it has is a successful community school, the Matènwa Community Learning Center (www.matenwa.org), which I’ve written about quite a number of times.

That school is at the center of a seven-school network of rural primary schools that have banded together to change education on their island, Lagonav. They have chosen to stand behind certain principles: active, student-centered learning, without beatings and without humiliations; education that’s appropriate to the rural region the schools and, more importantly, their students are in; and education in Creole, the language that’s native to all residents of Lagonav and the only language that students and, indeed, most teachers, speak and understand well. It’s a small start, in a way, but the network is only in its second year. Several other schools are interested in joining.

One of the most important things that the network can do for its member schools is organize faculty development seminars. Though the schools’ principals consistently name raising financial resources as their first need – Who can blame them? They are private schools located in communities of families that cannot really afford to pay – they just as consistently list teacher training as their second. The network’s ambitious goals for the kind of education it aspires to offer must remain nothing but goals unless teachers understand them well and have the skills they need to bring them about. So this past week, the Matènwa school has been hosting a summer workshop for about 25 teachers from member schools – and from some schools that are not members.

The workshop’s subject is the psychology of learning. How we chose the subject is itself a story. About two years ago, I spent a week with the Matènwa teachers studying psychology (See: HardQuestions). Even at the time, we had heard that the same Haitian university that had produced the textbook on psychology generally was producing a second on the educational psychology in particular. We knew right away that we’d want to study it. So we began asking the publisher for the book. For a while I was going to their bookstore every few weeks, expecting that it would finally be there. But over a year later, it was still pending.

Then we heard this spring that it was finally available. The university in question had opened a satellite campus in Lagonav’s one large town, and one of our colleagues had signed up for classes. There he discovered that the book was in use. He suggested that we arrange a workshop on the book because he felt that, even for him, the participatory methods we use would help him get more out of it than the lectures the university offers him. For most of the teachers we work with, who cannot go to college, a workshop would be the only chance they’d have.

When I began planning the workshop with the Matènwa teachers, we decided that a two-part approach would be best: I would spend one week meeting with them, going through the book as carefully as we could in such a short time. We’d then spend a second week with the larger group of teachers. During that second week, the Matènwa teachers would divide themselves into teams of two and three. Each team would be responsible for leading the workshop for a group of six to ten other teachers. For the Matènwa teachers, this would mean that they would not only get a second chance to study the book but also that they would gain experience as workshop leaders.

The first week we spent together was hard. We had seven chapters to get through, and five days to do it in. And we had to spend time the first day establishing a work plan, and reserve time on the last day for establishing a second work plan for the second week.

Fortunately, most of the teachers had read through the whole book by the beginning of the week, so we worked through the first chapter on Monday, and then two chapters a day for the next three days. Friday we finished Chapter Seven and had our planning meeting.

The biggest challenge we felt ourselves facing looking towards the second week was that the other teachers would not have the chance to read the book in advance. They would get the book on Monday, and would have to read its chapters during the workshop week itself. Since some of them would have long walks to join us every day, and plenty of chores to do on returning each afternoon to their rural homes, we knew that reading time would be limited. We therefore decided to build quiet reading time right into the daily schedule. We’d serve a very light breakfast at 8:00, but then wouldn’t start talking until just after 9:00. We announced that the interim was time for reading or reading the day’s assignment.

From 9:00 until noon we studied chapters in groups of eight to ten, each led by a couple of Matènwa teachers. The groups would spend the first couple of hours discussing any chapter subjects that participants had questions about. Together they would try to get the clarity they sought. After that, even these small groups would divide into small ones, with three or four members at most. These smaller groups would answer the questions that the textbook’s author put at the end of each chapter.

We had lunch at noon, and got back to work at 1:00. We spend about 15 minutes addressing whatever questions lingered after the morning’s work.

After that, we tried something we had never tried before. To explain, I need to go back and touch upon something that initially puzzled us: We wanted to cover seven chapters, but we knew that we couldn’t ask participants to read more than one chapter each day. Since we wanted to reserve Friday for a different activity, we had four days, or time for four chapters at most. The Matènwa teachers chose Chapters One-Three, which are general treatments of the subject, and chapter seven, an introduction to Piaget. That left Chapters Four and Five, each on a different aspect of behaviorism, and Chapter Six, on //Gestalt// theory.

We decided that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoon, we would have a short lecture and discussion. One of the Matènwa teachers would present a fifteen-twenty minute talk, and then open the floor for questions.

This was very new ground for them all. In the first place, the habits they have been cultivating at Matènwa have been running precisely contrary to the traditional lecture format. Everything we’ve been working on has been discussion-based. And the Matènwa teachers aren’t much inclined to the lecture mode, especially in front of colleagues. They don’t usually view themselves as experts. So while they speak well and comfortably about their experiences at the school, presenting a more academic topic would be entirely new.

But these presentations went well. The teachers didn’t over-reach. They were brief enough that they were able to stay clearly focused, but long enough that their listeners were able to start ask meaningful questions.

Thursday afternoon was a general review of the four days’ work. We drew a tree on a blackboard and filled the tree with fruit. Each piece of fruits had a topic we had covered written on it. If everyone felt they understood the topic, the fruit was ripe and we harvested it with an eraser. If anyone had questions, we left the fruit on the tree until the questions were addressed.

Friday is an Open Space meeting. We used that very flexible format to invite teachers to talk about how they will be able to apply the week’s learning in the classes that they teach. The teachers themselves proposed a list of topics that they fitted into a previously blank agenda for the morning that we had drawn on a board. There would be two sessions, and six-eight topics were proposed for each. Once the agenda was filled, the teachers scattered, going to participate in whatever discussion of whatever topic interested them most.

At the end of Friday’s meeting, Abner Sauveur, Principal of the Matènwa school, summed things up beautifully. “When you told us that we ourselves would lead a workshop on psychology for the other teachers,” he said, “I was pretty skeptical. It was wonderful to discover what we were able to do.”

So there is, as yet, no School of Education in Matènwa. But there’s lots of teacher education going on there nonetheless.