Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sewing Seeds of Revolution, er, Democracy: Constructivist Education in Rural Haiti

A Bit of Background: Popsicle Sticks, Lima beans, blocks and cubes  – Haiti, ahoy!
While the coffee is growing in nearby fields, we will be developing several exploratory, hands-on math concepts activities to share with children, Toma and teachers during the “d’ete” (summer school)

Like the classroom equipment and furnishings, the extent of rural education is minimal (Many teachers complete 8th or 9th grade, simply); teaching is all by rote and some can't write.  Learning is by oral repetition, like chanting or singing.  Interestingly, this approach is recently being reviewed by educators in the U.S. as a possible effective methodology with some learning styles...Hmmm.
Few students have any but stubby pencils...last year, I brought 100 small plastic pencil sharpeners (among other things) to replace the Gillette razor blades the 5 year olds were using!
And also: to piggyback social cognition and a child-centered, democratic classroom on top of the math curriculum.
In rural Haiti - as well as in the capital - even the smallest children are motivated to try to go to school and to learn.

This summer’s “clientele” are ALL ages and grade in school is irrelevant, as 11 years olds are as likely as 5 year olds to be in pre-school or first grade. Our goal is: to facilitate the learning/sharing of math ideas. That is, less to teach than to point some ways and see what they make (literally) of stuff.

Under girding all is the thought that even I don't have the chutzpah to revamp the minimal material that passes for "curriculum" in rural Haiti! Instead, I plan to do is share ideas with one or two teachers/head of school and see what they make of things...I am sure that there will be a lot of translation, and a lot lost in translation...But everyone, myself and student teams included, will learn something, no doubt.
Telling and re-telling a story, in Kreyol and English

We translated a summary of principles of child centered education - into French (for the older teachers) as well as Kreyol - to get the ideas across to teachers and parents, when I have the opportunity. So, some of the curriculum and ideas may hopefully morph into something, Haitian-style.

This summer, all we’ll be doing is sowing the seeds and guiding in the use of some manipulatives.  
If there’s interest, the exploration will continue managed by more Haitian teachers and parent volunteers, next summer and beyond.

The head of the nearby church "school" (yes, quotes are appropriate) is emphatic about learning about "Child-centered education" so...with all this, we are going to change the world, or a small bit of it, anyway...

The goal is not to teach mathematics, but to import some engaging methodologies to stimulate thinking, innovation and creative, "owner managed" learning...They may end up reinventing the wheel --- but, hey that's the idea! 
The teaching methods build on the Stanford model of Complex Instruction, in which the “educator” will present math conceptually, and piggy-backing social/interaction/communication skills/group work such that the teacher is more of a facilitator -- that is to say, there is less teaching but more learning going on.
Learning and development of the community of scholars happens in different dimensions along with math concepts.  Literally turning the tables in traditional Haitian schoolrooms, the summer school will set children to work in pairs and groups around tables (or church pews turned into a V-shape!). Talking to one another about math approaches and solutions will be a radical departure from the old sage on a stage paradigm of French, and Haitian, classical education. That authoritarian model, in which only the teacher is the arbiter of truth, can be slowly displaced/replaced as students are encouraged to talk with one another, share ALL ideas, respect ALL ideas and allow for differences, more than one solution, discrepancies, discussion.  Revolution!

There's lots of material (pie in the sky theory?) which could be a big move for sowing seeds of democracy, if not revolution, in what passes for classrooms in Haiti.  Once children have the concept that their opinion is valued by others, and they are in an environment where they can playfully take risks rather than be driven by need to quickly get the right answers, I think it will be an interesting. if small, step in a very small place towards more participatory...citizenship?
Retelling the story
Exploring a simple English text
So that’s the big picture.  That’s about it.
Importantly, the goal is not to prepare students for the French baccalaureate exam or the qualifying exams in the capital, nor for higher education in the capital, but for problem-solving, creative conceptual thinking in situ, that is, in their home zone, the rural area, the agricultural context. The current paradigm in rural schools is unrealistic and unreliable preparation for French education and a slow boat to Miami.  Better to engage students in novel methods of understanding place value, money concepts, geometry, fraction concepts, that they might derive from, use and build on the agricultural community’s knowledge and culture, and not in a mere "token" way...That is, we won't want to merely substitute counting ears of corn for counting plastic teddy bears, simply. We will work - as much as an outsider can - within the culture, with what we know and make of of it - and develop collaboratively with teachers (that in itself will be an education for both of us!) the seeds of a new curriculum, math curriculum that lends itself to problem-solving and innovation in rural Haiti.  
We will have literacy classes in Kreyol, and beginning English for some - I've resisted teaching English for 12 years, seeking rather to learn the language of the people, instead of showing my mastery of a language unknown to them. Now, there is a great demand for English, so I have to go with the flow, rise with the tide.  
We will "pilot" what we can this summer.  As they say in Kreyol, "Si Dye vle, so bon Dye vle."

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