The Project

I’ve written precious little so far about the work that I came to Haiti to do. Really, nothing at all. One reason for this is that it has seemed important to provide some context, to locate my work, by sharing something of the place where I find myself. But beyond that, it’s simply seemed premature: Not very much work has happened so far. We are still in the preparatory stages of our work, and it hardly seems that interesting.

At the same time, it might be a good time to say something of the plan we have for these first months, and a few words about the issues that are emerging as we try to set
our plan into action.

For the last two summers, our team here in Haiti-principally: David Diggs, John Engle, Guerda Lexima, Eddy Sterlin, and I-have led various seminars in which we introduce a range of Haitian teachers to the practice of leading discussions in their classrooms. The approach to discussions we use, called “the Touchstones Project,” was developed by several of my own teachers at St. John’s College. It uses a range of activities-individual, small group, and large group-that focus on short, well-chosen texts. These activities
have as their over-arching goal to help students take over primary responsibility for their own education.

It’s hard to imagine just how foreign here the notion of relatively open discussions in a classroom is. Here, most teaching involves providing students with long texts to memorize, texts in French, a language they rarely understand, a language many of the teachers themselves do not understand well. Beatings and other humiliations are the two main ways teachers aid students’ with memorization.

Our sense after two summers was that our short seminars were serving to generate enthusiasm for the idea of conversation, but that without ongoing support it would be too difficult for teachers to know what to do with the idea. We decided to try a slower, longer-term approach.

We decided to spend this Fall organizing two discussion groups. We will meet weekly with each, and lead each through a series of discussions. Our idea was that the process will make much more sense to those who have had the chance to experience learning within a discussion group themselves. At the same time, we can use the weekly meetings to discuss the problems and possibilities that naturally arise in such work.

That’s all we’re doing: organizing two discussion groups. Not very ambitious, really.

But nothing here seems easy. It has, for example, been hard to identify a place to meet. We need a classroom close enough to downtown Pòtoprens that it will be easily accessible. At the same time, there may be elections this Fall. Elections could easily mean violence, and it is downtown that such violence is most likely to occur. In other words: We need to be close to the action, but want to be out of harm’s way.

We have also begun recruiting participants. Recently, Guerda and I met with six interested college students at our office. We talked some about our project, then I led them through a discussion of a text excerpted from the //Iliad//, the moment when Hector returns from battle to see, for the last time, Andromache his wife. They were very good students, but that fact hardly interfered at all. It will nonetheless be a long road. They had a lot of questions about how little I, the Teacher, was saying. They found silence uncomfortable, and wondered why I did nothing to break it. In other words, it was a perfectly ordinary first class.