The Group in Bizoton

Ensemble Scolaire Père Basile Moreaux is the only place where I have ever:

  1. Taught a class with someone sitting on my lap. (The well-behaved little boy’s mother participates in the class, and she herself was holding her beautiful girl.)
  2. Spoon-fed someone in class. (No metaphor here. The little girl didn’t want to eat her beans and rice, and Madanm Aline was busy.)
  3. Been vomited on during class. (Not the same week as #2.)

I am having a strange and wonderful experience there.

Père Basile Moreaux is a collection of schools on one campus. It’s directed by an energetic and funny priest, Pè Simon, who’s largely responsible for the fact that the program has developed as it has. There’s a three-year preschool, a six-year elementary school, and a seven-year secondary school. Post-secondary professional programs are planned. It’s in Bizoton, an area on the coast south of Pòtoprens, on the road that leads
through Kafou to Leyogan and Okay. Our connection there is with the preschool, which receives substantial support from the same Haitian foundation, FOKAL, that funds much of our work. We were invited to start a weekly discussion group there by four preschool teachers who were coming into Pòtoprens each week to participate in one of our groups here. The trip for them was two hours each way, and they were having to leave school early to arrive on time. They claimed, and we agreed, that it would make more sense for us to come to them-especially since a group at their own school would allow more of them to get involved. I now go every Thursday, alone or with others, in public transportation I’ve described elsewhere. Their school day ends at about 2:00, and we start somewhere between then and 2:30, depending on how long it takes to get together.

It was clear from the start that we would not aim mainly at training discussion leaders for preschool classes. It might be a good idea to lead discussions of texts with children three to five years old, but I’m not sure that it is. I am sure that I don’t know how to do it, and I suspect that there are better things for such very little kids to do in school. On the other hand, the teachers themselves are poor readers in two ways. First, their own limited education has been in French. Kreyol, though native to them, is not the language they would tend to read in. Work at reading seriously in Kreyol can thus be useful to them. Second, the reading that they have done for school has probably been pretty narrowly focused. They read to remember, perhaps word-by-word. At best, they might look to memorize and deliver a summary. They don’t engage themselves actively with the texts they read: They don’t probe, question, reject, or affirm. They don’t judge. They don’t bring their own knowledge and experience to bear.

We believe that such reading as they do is the farthest thing from liberating. We decided, together with the teachers who invited us there, that we could postpone any question as to whether or how to bring Wonn Refleksyon into their classes. We decided that the opportunity to read actively and thoughtfully together would be useful enough in its own right. The teachers themselves had one important suggestion: that we invite the parents of their preschoolers to participate. They felt this could serve to bring more parents into the school. As a result, we now have a group that consists mainly of parents. Plans to get more teachers involved have consistently failed, but we have new parents with us almost every week.

As the group’s work has progressed, it’s character has shifted dramatically. In early meetings, two men who were in the group dominated almost entirely. Each question anyone asked would draw at least one long speech out of each of them. Sometimes two or three. The speeches were really very long, often several minutes – which is longer than you might think. They rarely were closely related to one another, except in as much as they would treat more or less of the same subject. As the orators spoke, others would listen politely or whisper unobtrusively to whoever was closest. After a short series of long speeches, one or the other of the men would turn to me to produce another topic of speechification.

In contrast to our monotonous large-group discussions, our small-group work was engaging from the very first. Participants would talk, in groups of three or four, about their questions and concerns about the text. I would step out of the group, often even leaving the room. (Actually, that’s how I got vomited on. But that’s another story.) Everyone, or almost everyone, would participate actively. The four teachers who had experience in the process worked, both by example and explanation, to integrate the parents who had joined us. The types of questions that the small groups develop have changed quickly. In early meetings, each group would tend to summarize a text and then ask something about the “lesson” in it. Often, they would answer their question in the very same speech. As the weeks have passed, though, the questions have grown shorter and more specific. Particular questions about words, thoughts, or events in the texts. And about our judgments, too. Such questions have tended to lead away from the texts, and our discussions now wander very, very far.

But as they have, they’ve changed in character, too. Instead of two or three men dominating through long speeches about the lesson “we” are to learn, five or six or eight or ten men and women are making much shorter about the texts, but even more about their lives. These speeches may not always be as responsive to one another as one might wish. Perhaps we’re not yet, as a group, engaged enough in what any one of us has to say. But more people are talking, fewer are whispering – however unobtrusively – to their neighbors, and attendance is one the rise.

And it’s important to think about how much mere attendance means here. Bizoton is a working-class neighborhood. For these working-class parents to get dressed up – they wouldn’t come without looking good – in the middle of a blistering Bizoton afternoon to spend two hours of their very hard day reading and talking about stories is one small but very clear sign of what they’re willing to do to be a part of their children’s education.

The meetings can still be odd in some ways. Just one example: Almost any extended silence is likely to bring forth not new questions about the text or about related issues. Instead, the silences invite testimonials for the meetings themselves: how much “we” like them, how “we” need to get more parents involved. It’s something I’ve not seen before, and I don’t quite understand it. But I assume that the tendency will fade as we learn to engage ourselves more and more with texts and with what we have to say about them.