By Maya Earls
Only a few days into the new year, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are already working with Haitian educators to challenge traditional methods of teaching in Haiti by bringing Kreyòl into the classroom.
The planning is part of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, which was founded in 2010 by Professor of Linguistics Michel DeGraff and Associate Dean of Digital Learning Vijay Kumar. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many Haitian educators signed a petition created by State University of Haiti Professor Yves Dejean with the goal of rebuilding the education system in Haiti.
“The point was simple,” DeGraff said. “After the earthquake, if we are going to get aid, get help to rebuild the school system, let’s please not do it the way it was done before.”
Studying the history of the Kreyòl language and working with Dejean both before and after the earthquake led DeGraff to gather educators at MIT and Haiti to form the initiative. Through the initiative, MIT professors of science, technology, engineering and mathematics work with Haitian educators to change how children are educated in Haiti.
Traditionally, Haitian schools teach children subjects in French, which makes it more difficult for children to learn, according to DeGraff.
“In practice, French is what is used in most contexts where power and wealth are created,” DeGraff said. “What that does, it excludes a majority of Haitians from ever getting a chance to pull themselves from their bootstraps; from the beginning, the majority of kids are blocked in how they are learning because they cannot use their native language to learn the basics, starting from literacy.”
With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation and MIT, the initiative hosted their first workshop in Haiti in 2012, where MIT professors worked with teachers to develop lesson plans in Kreyòl. The first day of the workshop, DeGraff said many teachers were not comfortable using the written language for subjects such as science and math. Some teachers asked specifically why not teach in French.
“I had to explain the rationale of the project,” DeGraff said. “Given all the research that we’ve accumulated, evidence [showed] that students learn better in their native language.”
DeGraff said by the last day of the workshop, teachers were able to present their own lesson plans in Kreyòl, and were more accepting of the language’s use in science in math. Since then, the initiative has hosted six workshops, the most recent in August 2015.
Along with promoting Kreyòl teaching, DeGraff said the initiative is working to change how students are taught. MIT Professor of Mathematics Haynes Miller said, like the United States, students in Haiti spend most of their class time copying notes from the teacher.
“Often, the lecturer will write in French, will write things on a blackboard,” Miller said. “Students will dutifully copy it and be expected to be able to solve some problems on an exams.”
Miller said MIT professors are introducing new active learning methods into the Haitian classroom using online resources. For teaching mathematics, Miller and his team translated about 20 interactive online math applets he created, called “Mathlets” into Kreyòl. Now, students in Haiti can work on problems on their own.
“The role of a lecture gets greatly reduced, and replaced by students actually doing work in real time in a classroom,” Miller said.
So far, the initiative has served about 250 Haitian faculty members. The Haitian educators participating came from a variety of schools, with a survey from a January 2015 workshop indicating 46 percent high school faculty, 36 percent university faculty and 18 percent involved both at the high school and university level.
The initiative is currently planning another workshop in March in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and establishing a more active role in Haitian Institutions such as the State University of Haiti, Henri Christophe Limonade campus and the University of Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince. DeGraff said he hopes for Haitian students to learn in Kreyòl the same way students in France learn in French.
“We have to open up the school system in a way that every single Haitian, no matter their class, no matter the geography, no matter their personal history, can have access to the best possible education,” DeGraff said.