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Teaching and Learning Collaboration in Haiti | Katherine Schultz

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A fifth grade boy reading to several kindergarten children.

A fifth grade boy reading to several kindergarten children.

This July, I went with five educators—including Linda Kroll, Fredi Breuer, Serena Clayton and Regie Stites—to Haiti to work with teachers from three different schools supported by Sionfonds [http://www.sionfondsforhaiti.org], an NGO founded by Annie Blackstone. Sionfonds works with local communities to construct buildings for schools in locations with few, and sometimes no, educational opportunities. Once the schools are established, Sionfonds pays teacher salaries and provides medical and dental care for children and families in the school community. During the past two years, the organization has also provided professional development to improve teaching, a crucial matter in Haiti where literacy rates are alarmingly low among children and adults. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Haiti]

We spent a week at the Sionfonds school in Cavaillon, a small rural community about four hours from Port-Au-Prince. Together with 25 teachers from the three schools, we ran a week-long summer school for about 190 children that focused on community building, reading, writing, and bookmaking. Our goal was to introduce collaborative methods while teaching the children and teachers. We first spent the first day working with the teachers. For the rest of the week, the teachers spent each morning in classrooms, teaching in teams of two and three; in the afternoons, they met with us to reflect on their experiences and learn new methods for collaboration and teaching literacy. They used this knowledge to plan the next day.

We wanted the teachers to be captured by the excitement of collaborating with one another to learn new methods of teaching.  We also wanted them to learn new ways to talk about reading, writing, and making books. We knew they would learn differently if we set them up to learn with and from each other. We hoped teachers would then bring these same methods into their classrooms, so that students could learn with and from peers as well as from teachers. We also wanted teachers and students –many of whom live in homes with no books—to feel that they were readers and writers. Overall, we wanted to convey that school is much more than preparation for tests, and education can allow children and adults alike to dream and imagine new possibilities.

We were pleased to find that there was already lots of collaboration in the school. The classrooms were partitioned off by small poles and narrow strips of canvas, with as many as five classrooms in a single open space. The voices of teachers and children from all the adjoining classes mixed together, sometimes creating so much noise it was difficult to hear. Great teaching ideas traveled between classes along with and through the sounds.

We built on this collaboration as we paired teachers from different schools to teach in a single classroom and then introduced literacy practices that could be taught using collaborative methods. One more formal collaborative practice is called “collaborative mentoring,” and we introduced it to the teaches as a way they could observe and provide feedback for each other’s teaching. Teachers shared their classroom experiences and observations in powerful conversations, and over the week we saw them try out practices they observed in their partner teachers’ classes.

Similarly, although the children often worked together informally, we showed the teachers several formal strategies they could use to help students collaborate. In Haiti, as in much of the world, teachers ask questions and the whole class responds – hopefully with the answer anticipated by the teacher.  We showed teachers how they could instead engage the students by having them turn to a partner to discuss the ideas in the book rather than by searching for a correct answer.  We suggested that they ask students questions to elicit more details in their writing, rather than simply demanding that they fill a page. Further, we encouraged them to teach pairs of students to try this same process with each other.  During the week, each teacher and student made two different kinds of books, one for poetry and one for narrative writing; at our celebration at the end of the week, younger and older children shared their stories with one another, illustrating another form of collaboration.

A week of literacy and collaboration was a powerful experience for the teachers and students.  During the time we were in Cavaillon, we saw so much change. We saw adults and children learn the pleasure of reading stories with unexpected endings and of arguing about their meaning. We saw them experience the delight of seeing poems and stories unfold, of writing in books they made themselves, and sharing those books with their families and friends. They learned to view themselves as readers and authors.  On the last day, a fifth grade teacher told us, “We know a lot of stories but I never decided to write them down. Last night I wrote a beautiful story in French. I will ask the children to make predictions when I read it in September.  I think the story will go far and I am very happy.”

Our work in Haiti illustrates how important it is to create opportunities for teachers and students to work together and learn from one another. In the United States we have largely eliminated such opportunities for collaboration in our relentless push to raise test scores and close the so-called achievement gap.  We forget how important it is for teachers to learn from one another and share their expertise, which reinforces the professionalism of teaching. In a world consumed by high stakes educational reform, we have become blind to how collaborative practice improves the quality of teaching. I suggest we pause, reflect, and learn from efforts such as our work in Haiti, where we saw teachers and children learning from and with each other, and joyfully and proudly changing their practices.

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Katherine Schultz is the Dean and Professor of Education at the School of Education at Mills College.

Written by collegialconnections

July 31, 2013 at 9:52 am

Passage to Yerevan: A Fulbright Scholar in Armenia

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Professor Diane Ketelle

Diane Ketelle, Associate ProfessorMills College School of Education

After working for twenty-four years as an elementary school teacher, elementary school principal, school district superintendent and professor, I was afforded the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave. I was excited at the thought of taking time to recharge and seek fresh perspectives on my teaching. As a seasoned traveler whose research and desires have taken me to Japan, France and India, I wanted to work and live in a part of the world I had never been before and about which I knew very little. A Fulbright teaching award seemed like that opportunity. As summer approaches, I want to share a little bit of my sabbatical experience in Armenia hoping that you, also, will find fresh perspectives on teaching and learning during your break.

Not an American tourist destination or vacation spot and isolated from much of the world by language, culture, and closed borders to the west and the east, Armenia is a country the size of the State of Maryland. Surrounded by Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two million people live in the country, and of those one million live in the city of Yerevan. Yerevan was established in 782 BC, 29 years earlier than Rome, and is now Armenia’s capital. Nestled in a semi-circle of hills descending to the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is made up of broad avenues, modest dwellings, offices, shops, honking horns and masses of people. Over run and over run again, Armenia was once a large country covering most of the local region, in its 21st Century formation it has yet to emerge as a real presence in the global village. Modernity has been slow to come to Armenia with its old Soviet power grids, waterlines and phone lines forming the base of Yerevan’s infrastructure. A week with consistent electricity is considered a delight and daily hot water is a luxury.

After flying into a small airport just outside of Yerevan, entering the city in the dark disguised the dusty streets, cratered sidewalks and made it unclear that monuments and buildings there can decay without complete impunity. Yerevan is best understood in the morning when the light glistens off of the many buildings built of pink tufa stone. The tufa stone was the idea of Alexander Tumanyan, an Armenian architect, who created a general plan for Yerevan in 1924. New apartment buildings have jutted up in the city, mostly chalky pink blocks that are neither graceful nor harsh. The Armenian alphabet is Syriac and street signs are written in Armenian and Russian, obtuse for a person who reads, nor speaks either. Since few spoke English, pantomime and laughter were my main languages in shops and restaurants around town.

Yerevan in August was a teeming haze of pollution that sat atop the city as the temperature rose and Mount Ararat towered in the distance. The sky was a faded blue. There I was, people all around, on sidewalks, in the parks, on corners playing chess, and playing with children everywhere. I was struck by the fact that at five foot four inches I was tall and bigger than most men who passed me on the street. Armenians enjoy conversation, hospitality and sitting in summer sidewalk cafes until the early morning hours. I did not fully understand the semi arid continental climate that allowed for hot summers and snowy winters, but the residents had learned to stay outside and enjoy the heat before the cold winter fell.

View of Yerevan with Mount Ararat in the distance

View of Yerevan with Mount Ararat in the distance

Time slowed down in Yerevan. No one around me was scurrying or trying to attend to pressing business. Yerevan does not have a commuting culture and days are slow to start. As time passed, I too scurried less and noticed I remembered more – a loaf of bread, the newspaper, and the faces of people passing by. When a friend came to visit from the United States she wanted a cup of coffee at a cafe early in the morning, and was disappointed to find it impossible.

After six weeks of navigating the city, I started teaching at Yerevan State Linguistic University. The university is named for Valery Brusov, a Russian poet and writer, who translated many major works of literature into Armenian. I was assigned to teach in a master’s degree program UNESCO had founded a year prior in educational management and planning, the only program of its kind in the country. The goal of the program is to prepare students to lead elementary, middle or high schools throughout the country. I do comparable work at Mills, where I direct the administrative credential and master’s degree in educational leadership programs, so I felt well qualified to teach students in Armenia aspiring to lead schools.

The university sits on the corner of Tumanyan Street in downtown Yerevan. Surrounded by small shops and markets it is a large, three story, pink building that is in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere inside is more like an American high school than a university. The school enrolls mostly women, because it is socially acceptable for them to study foreign languages. After graduating many become tour guides for the few French, German or Russian tourists or they may work in souvenir shops where their proficiency in languages can be used. Adding to the aura of it being more like a high school than a university, there were constant giggles, clicking high heels and the use of lipstick was ubiquitous.

I taught a course titled, “U.S. Perspectives on School Leadership” to twelve young Armenian women, all less than thirty years old. My students were mystified by the “West” and established their fashion style from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, often wearing extremely high heels, short skirts and very tight pants, convinced that is how “American women” dress. Most of my students had never met an American before and only two of them had traveled outside of Armenia. They would often ask me, “What are your students like in the United States?” They wanted to know how they compared. My students could speak, read and write English and many of them had to advocate for themselves within their families to go to graduate school. Two of my students were married and one had a child. The level of oppression of women is more wide sweeping in Armenia, so managing marriage, motherhood and graduate school in that culture is even more complex than in America, requiring students to leave suddenly to resolve family problems when a parent, or, in particular, a mother-in-law would call. Students were fearful that when they graduated there would be little or no opportunity for them to lead schools that desperately need their talent, intellect and imagination.

My time in Yerevan constituted a successful cultural exchange because it reinforced in me that to live in another culture takes the capacity of respect. Respecting what you do not know about history, culture, language, terrain, bread and consequently requires the capacity for self-respect and dignity. I take away from this experience the knowledge that international teaching exchanges can be transformative when one is willing to examine our culture in contrast to those we visit. One teacher can make a difference when transplanted to the other side of the world if she is open to learning just as much as she will teach.

Written by collegialconnections

July 11, 2011 at 11:21 am

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