The Mirror

One aspect of my work that has been particularly striking to me since I came in January is something that I don’t do.
I have spent very little time involved in Wonn Refleksyon, the project that brought me to Haiti in 1997. Wonn Refleksyon is an adaptation, for Haiti, of the Touchstones Discussion Project. It’s a method of working with a group, using a certain kind of text and a combination of individual, small group, and large group work that aims at helping people to take over responsibility for their own education, to collaborate more effectively, and to develop a healthy relation to authority – both the authority of a group leader and the authority of a text.

In all the years since I first came here, Wonn Refleksyon had remained the main focus of my work, so much so that my colleagues here have really come to identify me with it. When I’m explaining one or another of the activities I’m involved in right now, they generally want to know how it relates to Wonn Refleksyon. How is it the same? How is it different? They even tend to think of the teaching I do at Shimer College as a spin-off or an adaptation of the techniques that they know as part Wonn Refleksyon.

And Wonn Refleksyon is alive and well in Haiti. There are groups using the activity in primary schools, adult literacy centers, and other places where adults or children meet. A few of those groups are led by people who were introduced to the activity by me and my first colleagues, but many of them are not. There are second and third and fourth generation discussion leaders who are flourishing.

So I’ve been going about my work, quietly smiling about how little use Wonn Refleksyon really has for me these days. But I suddenly had the chance to watch a couple of colleagues introduce a group of teachers to Wonn Refleksyon for the first time, and I jumped at it.

I had been planning a trip to Lagonav since I first arrived here. I needed to go to Matenwa, because the teachers at the school there and I wanted to read a book together – a short one by the French psychologist Jean Piaget – and planning really needed to happen face-to-face. In addition, I have many friends there, collected over years of visits. Finally, my newest godchild had been born in Matenwa in August, and I had yet to meet him.

In any case, I wanted to go.

But getting to Matenwa is a nuissance. Just to get to Karyès, where you catch the boat that takes you from the mainland to the island, is complicated these days. The combination of busses and pick-up trucks you need to take can vary depending on which neighborhoods the drivers believe are safer on a given day. After those rides, there’s a sometimes-rough ride on a boat and an always-rough pick-up truck that winds from the port city of Ansagale up the mountain to Matenwa. So when Johna offered me a lift to Karyès in a comfortable SUV, I was very grateful. I stayed at her office in Delma Friday night, because she wanted to leave by 5:00 AM Saturday morning.
Johna is a missionary in Haiti, and she supports, among other things, a small school in a desolate area outside of Ansagale. She had heard about Wonn Refleksyon and decided to offer the teachers at her school training in it. So she hired an experienced team from the school in Matenwa, and started a six-month training at the beginning of February. She was going to attend the training session on Saturday – she goes every week – so my ride turned into a way for me to attend as well.

The training was led by Abner Sauveur, the founding director and a teacher at the Matenwa school, with assistance from another teacher, Benaja Antoine. It was the group’s fourth meeting, and Abner led it following the guidebook that a group of us that included Abner had written for the first volume of discussion texts that we use.

The guidebook suggests that the fourth meeting be devoted to helping participants start to think about the kinds of questions that they ask. They are asked to work in groups to articulate short questions about the passages in the text that strike them most. After sharing all their questions with the whole class, the class then spends twenty minutes or so discussing whatever points about the text or about the reflections the text evokes move them.

Abner directed them through the series of the day’s activities with short and clear instructions. Generally, he let them work on their own, prefering not to say very much, but he made a point of circulating through the class when small group work was going on to make ceratin that everyone knew what they needed to do, and he intervened in the larger discussion to give it focus, explore ideas the participants introduced, and make space for quiet people to get into the flow.

After the meeting, he invited me to join a question-and-answer session that went almost an hour past the time they had been scheduled to end. It was hot and dusty, and we were outdoors, so the fact that people wanted to stay and talk says a lot, especially since Abner made a point of inviting all those who needed to to leave.
The main topic of this concluding conversation was leadership. The main question was whether anything – Wonn Refleksyon, a classroom, a school, or anything else – can function without someone who’s the boss. Surely the question was moved in part by Abner’s very understated leadership of the group. He is a quiet man anyway, but he also chooses in his Wonn Refleksyon groups to let others speak more and speak first. It was also surely moved by the situation at the school: Johna had just fired its principal, and showed no signs that she planned to replace him with someone else.

Abner, Benaja, and I each argued in different ways that bosses are not necessary – at least not always. The conversation grew interesting as the group talked their Wonn Refleksyon group itself. Though Abner was by no means bossy, he had chosen the text the group would read and every step of the procedure they would follow. He had led the group.There could be no denying that.

The discussion ended without a real conclusion – it didn’t really need one – and we all went about our ways. I followed Anber and Benaja as they did errands in Ansagale, then the three of us went up the mountain together.
As I reflected through the afternoon and through the night that followed one thing struck me strongly: Abner had been so committed to limiting his own talking, to making his instructions as unobtrusive as he possibly could, that he had given them without any explanation. In a sense, that was okay. It worked. The instructions and the steps that they asked participants to follow were simple enough that they could be accomplished without much explanation.

At the same time, the group left the meeting not knowing why it was important to work on asking questions, nor why good questions could emerge from the process he asked them to use. What’s more, without explanation, the instructions really were just commands. As gentle and unassuming as his manner was, Abner had set himself apart from the group, reinforcing whatever sense they had that he is, in the end, a boss. A nice boss, but a boss nonetheless.

Abner and I discussed this issue the next morning, as we drew rainwater for bathing from the cistern at his home. I think he understood my concern.

Watching a long-time colleague work can be a little like looking at a mirror. In most of the Wonn Refleksyon groups that Abner has seen me lead over the years, I’ve said little more than he said in his. Much of the difference between how much we each talk reflects my relative incompetence in Kreyol. It takes me longer than Abner to say almost anything. I’ve tried to minimize my speaking to make space so others can talk.

I think that there’s a lot to be said for teaching that doesn’t involve talking very much, but I’ve grown to think that a teacher can say too little, too. If I am to lead a class, I must sometimes tell its members what to do. But I should take the time to explain my reasons as well. Participants in groups I lead cannot begin to share authority or responsibility – or they cannot share either well – if they do not understand the reasonings that it follows. As quiet and encouraging and inviting as I might be, I do not begin to bring those I work with into leadership unless I tell them what I, their leader, think.