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A treat.

Women at every intersection sell little bags of these spicy sugar peanuts for about a quarter. Some peanuts are spicy and hot; others are rolled in a sweet mix of sugar, ginger and cinnamon. The market across from our house sells cups of them for a few cents.

Teaching lessons

I was walking around while my English 1 class was taking their first test. I was thinking, man, this is not a good way to gauge their learning. In class, we do group activities and I try to get them to volunteer to speak. How is writing on a sheet of paper really helping them learn how to communicate in English? They’ve done the whole memorization thing before. They don’t need more of this.

I’m trying to think of better ways to assess student learning. Better ways to engage with them. Like Earl said, “Learning English is more like learning golf than learning history.” Earl is a New Yorker and experienced English teacher. Nathan wrote a great post about Earl on his blog. I told Earl about my dad. I respect how my dad teaches golf. It’s meditative. It’s responsive to students, but he doesn’t give them directions. He doesn’t tell them what to do, he lets them teach themselves and discover how to play golf. So Earl was trying to compare that with learning English. It’s a skill, not something you memorize. This is a lot to think about.

I could not have imagined how much I would learn from teaching. I keep thinking about all the teachers in my life who have asked good questions and let the students teach and learn together: In high school, Strecker, Miss A and others. In college, Nancy, Tom, Dr. Trix, Dean Evans, OJ, etc… so many good models of teachers. I owe it to those teachers, and my students, to rethink and change some of what I’m doing in the classroom.

One area where I think Nathan and I are doing well: Saturday kids class. We have a big group of hyper, hilarious kids every Saturday afternoon (for 4 hours!). The Hokey Pokey is totally what it’s all about.

Grateful for/excited for

Grateful for:

The pizza/ice cream place we just discovered down the street for midday walks and tasty breaks (OK, and maybe a rum punch sometimes.)

Haitian coffee.

Scream-singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with my English class vs. Nathan’s English class.

Haitian flowers. They call hibiscus “shoe black” because soldiers in the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 used to rub the flower on their shoes to clean them.

Nathan. And his endless banjo products. He whittled these banjo tuning pegs out of local wood.

Excited for:

A possible Christmas-break trip to Florida to see my family. I missed out on the hot air balloon ride for my grandpa’s 80th birthday; time for a redo.

Our housekeeper Gracieuse to return home (she’s been visiting family for a week and we miss her food and laughter.)

My marketing class in 2 hours that I still need to finish preparing!

Rainy Sunday.

A tiny, soaked nest in a tree in our yard.

Nathan and I enjoyed our first relaxing day since we started school. We slept in till about 8:30 (whoa!) and hung around the house all morning. I drank 3 cups of this Cardamom tea that I love (a treat I brought from home) and read 3 sent-from-home magazines cover to cover. I loved getting into a few good long stories again, but New York’s fall pop culture issue (of new TV shows and movies) felt funny and distant from life in Haiti. I liked the reminders of home, though.

We took a walk down the street to get some lunch snacks. I had a Sport Shake, a sweet milkshake in a can that I used to love drinking on road trips as a kid. I haven’t seen it in the US in years, but I love it as a treat in Haiti. I also ate candied peanuts, a treat in Les Cayes made with sugar, cinnamon and ginger. Nathan had Pringles and a Guinness. We’re so healthy on days when Graciuese is away.

I sat on our front porch and skyped with my mom and dad (and Piper). A storm was rumbling in the distance. It was so good to hear their voices and see their faces, even if the computer froze every few seconds. Our conversation was cut short when the wind and sudden rain slanted in and started drenching the porch.

Our front porch and draining water to the left of the ladder.

When it slowed down to a steady rain, Nathan and I sat outside under the porch’s roof and enjoyed the storm. He played a little music.

Nathan and the banjo he made from an olive oil can.

When it rains in Haiti, my first instinct is to think of the people who don’t have a sturdy home. I also think of bathing. The other day, I sat on a balcony and saw a young girl on the top of the house across the street. She ran outside in the rain, peeled off her clothes, and lathered up with a bar of soap. Someone in our house usually puts a bucket or tub outside to catch rain water and save it for washing clothes later.

When the rain slowed to a drizzle, we hopped puddles over to our friend Earl’s house and sat on his balcony to watch the storm pass into the night.

Lessons from week 2

I can’t believe we’ve only been teaching for two weeks. Time feels filled and fast at the same time. I’m looking forward to doing some early lesson planning for this week, because we’ve mostly been living day by day and prepping for classes right before they happen. It’s a busier life than we thought, which is an invigorating thing.

My NGO management class is lit up by a few superstars. These students are the ones thinking critically about what NGO presence has meant in Haiti. I’ve kept this class discussion-based. I teach a few ideas like how NGOs are structured, types of NGOs, and tax-exempt status, but we spend most of the 3 hours discussing questions like “What would happen if all the NGOs left Haiti tomorrow?” “Do NGOs ‘occupy’ or ‘support’ Haiti?”

I’ve learned that the best way to engage my students (and ensure that I save my own voice during my 3-hour classes) is to ask questions deeply controversial and relevant to my students’ lives: the things they might discuss with their friends or parents. For example, in my marketing class, we’ve talked about the booming cell phone industry in Haiti. I helped students realize that THEY are the target market. THEY are the audience, and that freebies now mean customer loyalty later, or so NATCOM hopes.

I adore my English 1 class. It’s in the evening, so I have more professional older students who have careers and come at night to practice. It’s a group that isn’t afraid to be silly, which helps everyone be comfortable. I encourage the class clowns, because they try to tell jokes in English and it loosens everyone up. It’s only about 15 students, and everyone gets my attention at some point in the class.

On the other hand, we had about 80 students wanting to take an English 2 class. One morning, I had 60 students in my class. I ran into the office where Nathan was sitting, and he graciously helped me with class that day, but we decided a class that big wasn’t good for anyone–teachers or students. We now have two English 2 classes at the same time early in the morning, and we might get one later in the day too.

A few of my students really should be in a higher level English course, but they don’t want to be in a class taught by a non-native English teacher. So they stay in my class, which is sweet, but not really helpful for their language growth. A few other students really should be in English 1, but they want to be with their friends. So I try to make them practice a lot.

Shyness is a big deal among students. Most students are comfortable sing-songing answers in unison, but look at me with wide, petrified eyes when I ask them to answer a question on their own. Other students, however, are eager to practice English and will stand up to give a long speech. So I’ve got all kinds of personalities, and every class is a juggling act among them all.

I’m grateful for what teaching is teaching me. I always tell my students that they are my teachers. They are my Creole teachers, and my patience and culture teachers. I think they like that I tell them that, and they enjoy teaching me new Creole phrases in class.

Sometimes I get discouraged when I think people are understanding everything and then I give an in-class writing assignment and tense up, worried about writing in English or not having the “perfect” ideas that I want. I am constantly having to tell them that I’m not looking for one right answer, and that I want to hear their opinions.

I don’t think the French-education system (of memorizing every word the professor says) has cultivated a classroom setting of brainstorming and thinking independently, even though I know my students are creative thinkers with friends and in their lives. So I’m working on bringing more of that free thinking into my classes.

The question I asked at the end of my NGO class this week: “Write as many ideas as you can on this questions: “What can I do to keep NGOs accountable? What can I promise myself I will do?” We had spent much of the class discussing how NGOs had struggled (and made many mistakes) after the earthquake, and I wanted to turn the focus to what Haitians themselves could do to learn about and engage with NGOs.

Ideas on those questions?

Thanks to Jerry, a visiting lecturer from California, who helped me plan the class.

Bottle service.

Some people in Haiti line the walls of their houses with their own security system. Or maybe it’s for birds, like those spikes in NYC? The glass bottle method is prettier.

Highlights from my first few classes

Inside the courtyard of BTI

Zinnias at the entrance to BTI

8 p.m. Monday: English 1

At the end of class, I ask students to write down five new words they learned and two questions. Among my favorite questions:

“Do you like to dance?”

“Do you have an umbrella?”

“Do you like some duck?”

“Where do you come from, Jack?”

“What kind of person are you Teacher?”

Sheesh. These are soul-searching questions for me.

A few of my students sitting outside. The girl in the middle has a funky, awesome sense of style. If she walked around Bloomington, students would want her clothes.

8 a.m. Tuesday: English 2

I also have these students (a bit more advanced) write me words and questions.

Some students took this opportunity to write me notes, which is fun. It’s more important to me that they’re practicing and are comfortable making mistakes than that they write or speak with perfect grammar.

“First of all, I wanna ask you how I can say this word in French. Strawberry. In your private life, I wanna know if you are married or no? I like your ways to teach!”

I love this. I love the use of “wanna.” It’s quite perceptive of the ways Americans speak.

Something I know about myself: I care more about communication than grammar/spelling/rules. I think this comes from my coursework in Linguistics in college. In English classes (and in my journalism work) I learned there are rules we are supposed to employ in language.

But rules of grammar are for writing, not necessarily for being understood. We don’t really need our prepositions at the end of sentences. We don’t really need to get “who” and “whom” correct all the time. We can be understood without sounding like an English professor.

So to the student who used “wanna:” I’ll show you how to write “want to” but I am so impressed that you hear “wanna” when you listen to English speakers. You are paying close attention. Please, please say “wanna” if you wanna.

More students. They take those motorcycles to class.

4 p.m. Tuesday: Marketing class

I say some things in English, but I primarily speak in Kreyol in this class. Keep in mind, BTI is primarily a business, technology, and professional school, so most classes are very skills-oriented.

We discuss:

  • needs
  • wants
  • audience
  • brands
  • And we talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

When she sees the “pyramid of needs,” one student, a woman in her late 30s, tells me she needs better employment. She wants to be an administrator in a school or office someday. We all brainstorm how she can achieve this, talking about needs and wants. I don’t care if that’s marketing or not. We were engaged.

Then we talk about cell phones (telecommunications is a huge industry in Haiti, see Nathan’s post on that). I have a student stand up in the front and market phones to us.

He ends up asking everyone individually if they “need” or “want” a Blackberry. Most people said in this day and age, everyone needs to be connected, and even though they don’t have a Blackberry, they “need” one. Others disagreed and said it was clearly just a “want.” I could have been in Bloomington, St. Louis, or New York City, having the same conversation. I like classes like these—I plan a few topics to discuss, and let the students take over. I’m just the moderator, and they’re teaching themselves.

On English, French and Kreyol

Kreyol is deeply and rooted as the language of Haiti. Bureaucracy, most education, and most “official” transactions are done in French, which is understood by some—primarily the highly educated.

There is a phrase “Kreyol pale, Kreyol konnprann.” Which means “Kreyol is spoken, Kreyol is understood.” Even if you speak French, you cry in Kreyol.

I’ve learned this through speaking with Haitians and through the research and work of IU’s Creole Institute led by Albert Valdman. His work is uplifting and supportive of Kreyol as its own unique language.

Even if I speak halting Kreyol, I will try to teach in it.

Haitian food: creative, delicious.

You can expect food to be a frequent theme in my posts. Haitian food is a creative blend of French cuisine with Caribbean heat and Haiti’s own twist on island food. There are fun restaurants in Les Cayes, which we visit on special occasions.

We primarily eat at home, where our housekeeper/cook/adopted mother/rat killer/boss Graciuese cooks everything. She’s been living with Monpe (“My father” the director of the school, who we live with) for about 6 years, and they have a solid understanding of what he likes to eat. (There is a great respect between the two of them, and I feel grateful for everything she helps me with. So far, she is my best Kreyol teacher.)

Nathan and I mix up the food norms a little, and I think she’s enjoyed trying new things for us.

Monpe doesn’t like anything spicier than black pepper; we love heat. He loves fish; we love goat but prefer meals with lots of vegetables. We all love to eat avocados at every meal.

A typical breakfast is fruit; watermelon (melon) slices, sweet and ripe pineapple (annanna), papaya, and avocados. We’ll also sometimes have some seasoned corn meal, or a dish of spaghetti, vegetables and ketchup (sounds strange, it’s delicious), or soup joumou (pumpkin and vegetable soup) on Sunday mornings.

The most important part of breakfast: The rich, dark, bold Haitian coffee. This stuff looks like mud and tastes like glory. It’s the reason I get through my day and wake up for the next. If a coffee house in Brooklyn sold Haitian coffee, they could charge double their already-expensive prices. It is so, so wonderful. Graciuese serves coffee with a teapot full of warm milk steeped with star anise, cloves, and cinnamon. Pictures to come of breakfast.

Graciuese (either because CJ is sort of weird to say in Kreyol, or because it’s just silly) calls me a different nickname depending on the meal. In the morning, I am “Madam Kafe” or “Ms. Coffee.”

This Sunday, after church, we stopped by a friend’s house. Under the family’s mango tree, we drank juice straight from coconuts (kokoye). Haitians call the juice “dlo” or “water” which makes sense, because it’s clear and pure unlike coconut milk which has some of the flesh blended in.

First, our host cut the husk with his machete (machet), leaving a hole through which the juice pours out.

Bail (say Bye), who lives with us, drinking the sweet water.

After we drink out the water, the man uses his machet to cut the coconut in half, revealing the young, soft inside. He cuts a sliver of the husk to use as a spoon and we scrape out and eat the fragrant fruit inside.

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Haiti. We usually eat fish (pwason), but sometimes we have goat (kabrit), beef (béf), or chicken (poul). Beans and rice with a thick bean sauce are served at every lunch. If we are working at school, Graciuese carries the food with her on a motorcycle taxi. On Sundays, we eat at home.


This is kabrit with seasoned carrots (kawot), potatoes (pòmdetè), and onions (zonyon). In the background is the most essential part of lunch: the pikliz. This is a spicy mix of shredded carrots, cabbage and onions seasoned with Scotch Bonnet peppers. SBs are a flavorful habanero used in many Caribbean dishes. Graciuese adds it all to the jar (see “redboy” label–oy) and covers it with vinegar and adds a little bit of a chicken buillon cube for its saltiness. Think of a very hot coleslaw. I like to cover my food with this entirely, so that I have to dig to find anything else:

In the background are fried plantain (bananan). Also, now that it is lunch time, I am “Madam Pikliz” to Graciuese.


Lined up in pretty rows: a vegetable platter with tomatoes (tomat), seasoned cabbage and carrots (cho ak kawot), avocados (zaboka), and (my favorite vegetable!) beets (bètrav).


Lunch also always comes with freshly blended fruit juice. My favorite, here, is the refreshing and sweet watermelon juice (ji melon). I never knew that melon juice would have a creamy texture but a light and crisp flavor. So good on a hot hot hot day. When I drink this, Graciuese calls me “Madam Melon” which is the least flattering of my nicknames, as it implies that I am round like a melon.

Because lunch is so big, dinner is very light. We usually eat at about 7 or 8 p.m. There is always a platter of bread with a little round of cheese (fwomaj) wedges and a tub of locally-ground peanut butter (mamba). In the plastic cup are sweet roasted peanuts (pistach dous) that are sold all over Les Cayes. I usually don’t eat anything heavy for dinner, and instead just drink the sweet and warm chocolate drink you see. It’s a blend of that same seasoned milk (with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise) plus chocolate and sugar. So at dinner, I am “Madam Chokola” Nathan eats a bowl of  oatmeal. We go to sleep (by 11 at the latest but frequently at 9!) happy, grateful for the hospitality, delicious food, and creativity of Haitian cooking. It is true that there are many in Haiti who don’t get enough to eat, or who don’t get enough variety of fruits and vegetables. I could go on about this at length (and will in another post), but basically, Haiti was once able to feed the entire country with locally-produced goods.

We try to eat as many local foods as possible. All the fruits and vegetables come from nearby, as well as the meat. The bread is from a local bakery, and the peanut butter is all ground in Haiti, the coffee grown here. It makes me so sad to see things like imported peanut butter and sugar, when Haitian agriculture was once able to both sustain the entire country and export tons of goods. Now, with food aid flooding the market, you’ll see things like bags of rice (also grown locally), sugar, peanut butter, etc throughout the market and all labeled with food aid writing or other nations’ flags. But rice does grow here! So does sugarcane. It’s very difficult for farmers here to compete with the “free” gifts that flood Haiti and have for 50 years.

Friday update: another class, a little photo fun.

We start classes Monday, and Nathan and I were finalizing lesson plans all day. It’s difficult to prepare beyond the syllabus and first class, because we still aren’t sure how many students we’ll have, their language abilities, and their previous coursework. So the first classes will be informative not only to students, but to us as teachers.

A few of the teachers recently told the director that they will be traveling and cannot teach this semester. One was a marketing teacher, and one was a macroecon teacher. Nathan and I are now the substitutes! Nathan would be better at teaching either of those, but we need to split the work, so I will now be teaching a marketing class. No worries that I’ve never even taken a marketing class: I have “Principles of Marketing: Third Edition” from 1986, the internet, and high school acting experience. I’m set.

I think this Kreyol phrase applies: ti konkonm t ap goumen ak berejenn

(The little cucumber fights the eggplant, or, this is a longshot but I’ll try.)

Now, because this blog is getting far too wordy, here are some pictures. I normally roll my eyes when people travel and post pictures of themselves playing with little kids of another culture, but this little girl is hilarious. Her mom works at the school, and the whole staff basically takes turns babysitting her. When it’s my turn, I usually dance with her for a little bit then flip on “Photo Booth” on my Mac and let her play with the photo settings. See examples below:

I’m teaching her computer literacy at an early age! Right? And she teaches me the words for everything she points to and screams at! Machin! (CAR!) Chen! (DOG!) Who needs a Mnemonic device when you have a giggling kid to make sure you hear and remember the word for every object she sees?